Tuesday, January 31, 2017

the commonness of failure and the strangeness of life - gentle James - "The Abasement of the Northmores" and "The Great Good Place"

“The Great Good Place” (1900) features a writer overwhelmed with his profession, not the writing itself but everything surrounding it, “the bristling hedge of letters” and the “newspapers too many – what could any creature want of so much news? - … each with its hand on the neck of the other, so that the row of their bodiless heads was like a series of decapitations.”  Decapitated heads that also have hands – weird.  Then of course there are the huge mounds of new books, “books from friends, books from enemies.”

The exhausted author, somehow transports himself to a rest cure, or a writer’s retreat, perhaps by means of a dream, perhaps not.  It is in England, it takes currency, it has a library – “He could bring a book from the library – he could bring two, he could bring three.”  That’s my favorite line.  The joy of three books!  I have experienced that.

The “story” is little more than a description of James’s Utopia.  “There, for a blessing, he could read and write; there, above all, he could do nothing – he could live.”  In the end the very idea of the Utopia proves to be a cure.

“The Abasement of the Northmores” is about writers, too – letter writers.  Lord Northmore has died, and his wife has put out a call for his letters.  The less famous, less important, better Warren Hope has also died.  Why does no one want to read his letters, wonders Mrs. Hope?  But she dutifully sends her husband’s correspondence with Northmore, extensive and surprisingly well organized, to his widow.  She keeps secret her own, earlier letters – she could have been Lady Northmore.

There is a twist, a sharp sting, but for the most part the story is warm and gentle, a story about how mourning becomes tangled with resentment.  Appreciate – mourn – Warren Hope more, the wife demands, and that mediocrity Lord Northmore less.  She has two kinds of grief to work through.  Fortunately – this is the twist – her husband has left her a little gift that helps with this exact problem.

When she got home indeed she at first only wept – wept for the commonness of failure and the strangeness of life.  Her tears perhaps brought her a sense of philosophy; it was all as broad as it was long.

I do not usually think of James, a ferocious ironist, as gentle, and “The Abasement of the Northmores” is as much a story of revenge as anything else, but still.  These two stories pair well.

Tomorrow, more Jamesian revenge.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

engrossed at times, to the exclusion of everything else, with the study of the short story - Henry James in 1900, and a bit later

She had other play for her pen, as well as, fortunately, other remuneration; a regular correspondence for a ‘prominent Boston paper,’ fitful connections with public sheets perhaps also, in cases, fitful, and a mind, above all, engrossed at times, to the exclusion of everything else, with the study of the short story.  (“Flickerbridge,” 1902)

After The Awkward Age (1899), Henry James turned to short fiction, publishing eleven stories in 1900, which I think is his record (compared to ten in 1892).  Then one in 1901 and two in 1902, as he turned his attention back to novels.  James used short fiction to work on ideas and techniques he would need for his masterpieces, and the run of The Wings of the Dove (1901), The Ambassadors (1902), and The Golden Bowl (1903), the defining works of the “late James” style, are where it turns out James is going.

I don’t know that any of the ten I have read from the period are themselves masterpieces, not compared to “The Beast in the Jungle” (1903).  I am trusting John Bayley, editor of Collected Stories: Volume 2 (1892-1910, Everyman’s Library) to make the right choices.  “The Abasement of the Northmores,” maybe, that one is unusually good.  But now that I have come to understand James’s experimental method, I am as interested in figuring out what James is trying to do as anything else.  I am reading the biography of his creativity.

So, what is new?  The stories are short.  These are not the forty and fifty page “tales,” but short stories, twenty pages or less.  A few characters, one action.

Stylistically, they are all over the place.  “The Two Faces” is a return to The Awkward Age, dialogue-heavy, the story depending entirely on my inference.  Several move towards the long, complex sentences of “late James,” full of second thoughts and shadings – as in my header from “Flickerbridge” –  but then “Miss Gunton of Poughkeepsie” – what a title – is, for James, transparent, almost plain.  But it is, as the title suggests, also a return to a theme of twenty years earlier, the American girl in Europe, so the style is also twenty years old.  Maybe James salvaged it from the drawer.

Several stories star portrait painters.  Questions about writing, especially the creation of characters, are deflected onto painters.  In “The Beldonald Holbein,” the portrait painters do not even have to paint a portrait.  They change – possible ruin – a woman’s life just by saying she ought to be painted.

The two biggest surprises to me were “The Story in It,” which is poor stuff as a story but is really an essay in dialogue form about the purpose of fiction, and “The Great Good Place,” which is a genuine example of Utopian fantasy, and should be included in all anthologies of such works, if there are any.  A place of perfect rest for James.

I will dig in to these stories for a couple of days.  Any suggestions for others I ought to read are welcome.  “What, Bayley omitted ‘Broken Wings?’”  Or whatever.

Friday, January 27, 2017

too beautiful to let her read - writing other than dialogue in The Awkward Age

The enormous amount of dialogue in The Awkward Age emphasize everything that is not dialogue.  Much of it is gesture, action, or expression attached to dialogue:

The Duchess remained for a little rather grimly silent.

The Duchess handsomely stared.

… the Duchess echoed, fairly looking again around the room.

The Duchess was frank and jovial.

Again the Duchess had one of her pauses, which were indeed so frequent in her talks with this intimate that an auditor could sometimes wonder what particular form of relief they represented.

All of these are from a single page of Chapter 5.  Some kind of attitude is attached to four of her six lines of speech, ending in that elaborate, mystifying pause.  The dialogue is never presented straight for any length.  There is always more to interpret.

Much of the descriptive language is humorous.  Or I took it as such.  “Mitchy smiled at her till he was red” (Ch. 33).  That is not normal behavior.  The descriptions of people are generally hilarious:

Mr. Mitchett had so little intrinsic appearance that an observer would have felt indebted, as an aid to memory, to the rare prominence of his colourless eyes and the positive attention drawn to his chin by the precipitation of its retreat from detection.  (Ch. 7)

Mitchy is an extreme case, but throughout the book characters are described by the absence of characteristics, by their vagueness.

He had a pale, cold face, marked and made regular, made even in a manner handsome, by a hardness of line in which, oddly, there was no significance, no accent…  he suggested a stippled drawing by an inferior master…  with the air of having here and there in his person a bone or two more than his share…  (Ch. 6)

That’s Mr. Brookenham, the husband of the rhetorically brilliant queen of the novel.  The entire paragraph of his description is something else.  He is completely unsuited to for the verbal game played by his wife and her friends, so a good number of his lines of dialogue are often just “Oh.”  “’Oh!’ her husband replied” (Ch. 6).

Or another character, an important one: “He had indeed no presence, but he had somehow an effect” (Ch. 1).  James is unforgiving.  I will not be allowed to rest on my own imagination’s embodiment of the novel’s characters.  They have no embodiment outside of their speech, outside of the text.

The comic writing in The Awkward Age is strong.  This is the way to appreciate a view: “She had sunk down upon the bench almost with a sense of adventure, yet not too fluttered to wonder if it wouldn’t have been happy to bring a book; the charm of which precisely would have been in feeling everything about her too beautiful to let her read” (Ch. 16).

Or here’s Mitchy, again, who is admittedly one strange dude:

“’She said what they always say – that the effect I produce is, though at first upsetting, one that little by little they find it possible to get used to.  The world’s full of people who are getting used to me,” Mr. Mitchett concluded. (Ch. 7)

A line actually worthy of Wilde, there.  Mostly, reading The Awkward Age, I think, no wonder James bombed as a playwright.  But he got off some good lines.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

“I do say the most hideous things.” - The Awkward Age's talk

The story of The Awkward Age seemed a little thin to me.  Low stakes.  The mostly-dialogue method is inefficient.  It takes a lot of words, a lot more than usual, to get some pretty basic things, like characterization, or action, done.  Who cares whether Nanda escapes the corrupting influence of her mother?

Said another way: why tell this story this way?

She faltered still a little.  “I do say the most hideous things.  But we have said worse, haven’t we?”  (Ch. 21)

That is Mrs. Brookenham again.  Mrs. Brook is at the center of the circle of gossips and worse, the corrupters of morals who populate The Awkward Age.  Not just the center – she is their leader.  This groups of friends and otherwise are engaged in an elaborate and voluntary social game in which points are scored by means of superior rhetoric – wit, for example, which is why much of the dialogue sounds like Oscar Wilde – or more like Ronald Firbank – or other types of verbal felicity.

Mrs. Brook leads the circle because she is the superior rhetorician.  What appears to me as mannered gibberish is part of an elaborate ritual of social jousting.

The Duchess then glanced round the circle.  “You’re very odd people, all of you, and I don’t think you quite know how ridiculous you are.”  (Ch. 8)

Yes, exactly.  Exactly.  The most direct expression of this idea – aside from surprisingly frequently lines like “’I do so like your phrases’” (Ch. 21) – is this passage:

“Why, my moral beauty, my dear woman – if that’s what you mean by my genius – is precisely my curse.  What on earth is left for a man just rotten with goodness?  It renders necessary the kind of liking that renders unnecessary anything else.”

“Now that is cheap paradox!” Vanderbank patiently sighed.  “You’re down for a fine.”

It was with less of the patience perhaps that Mrs. Brook took this up.  “Yes, on that we are stiff.  Five pounds, please.”  (Ch. 22)

And the offender pulls out a five pound note!  As a penalty for sounding too much like Wilde!  Which is an established rule among these people!  Forget their affairs and their dirty French novels and so on, these are some danged odd birds.  I need the help not of literary criticism but anthropology.

The difficulties of the dialogues, then, are part of the dance, the competition.  Pronouns are made obscure on purpose, to elicit requests for clarification, a demerit.  Characters finish each other’s lines as ways to score points.  The compliments – magnificent, wonderful, splendid – which are mostly directed at Mrs. Brook, the champion, are concessions of defeat.  An odd variation near the end (“’You’re wild,’ she said simply – ‘you’re wild’”) is a way of saying that the “wild” character has broken some rules by being too intense and sincere.  His response: “He wonderfully glared.”  Poor guy is kind of the novel’s punching bag; I don’t blame him.

He shone at them brightly enough, and Mrs Brook, thoughtful, wistful, candid, took in for a moment the radiance. “And yet to think that after all it has been mere talk!” (Ch. 21)

I should have been watching for the word “talk.”

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

“The awful subject?” Mrs. Brook wailed - the subject of The Awkward Age - abject, horrid, unredeemed vileness from beginning to end

The “elderly” Mr. Longdon – “he would never again see fifty-five” – stumbles into a social circle that is centered around Mrs. Brookenham, the daughter of the woman he wanted to marry, long ago.  Mrs. Brook – lotta nicknames in this novel – Mrs. Brook’s daughter, Nanda, strongly reminds Longdon of his lost love.  Mrs. Brook’s circle of friends are “depraved,” mildly, or perhaps quite a lot.  Longdon determines to rescue Nanda from these horrible people before they ruin her.

This is more or less the story of The Awkward Age (1899).  Imagine that young Maisie, from the just slightly earlier What Maisie Knew (1897) has grown up a bit and found herself once again stuck in her mother’s disreputable world.  A lot of questionable people are wandering in and out of the house.  This chain of heroines – Maisie, the telegraph operator “In the Cage” (1898), the governess in “The Turn of the Screw” (1898) – make an interesting set.  Innocents among the corrupt.

One difficulty we are now likely to have with The Awkward Age is that the terms of the argument, how much a young woman might know about sexual matters, have changed so much that the central problem of the novel may have retreated into the Victorian fog.  Nanda is raised amidst fairly frank sexual talk and behavior.  Another young woman, Aggie, is protected, only fed “the small sweet biscuit of unobjectionable knowledge” (Book Fifth), and thus becomes depraved the instant she marries, running around on her hapless old husband on their honeymoon.  I mentioned a scene where two characters wrestle over a dirty French novel – that’s the young newlywed Aggie and her new boyfriend.  She sits on the book so he can’t get to it, yet pretty soon he has it.  Suggestive.  This is all just offstage, taking place just as the other characters wonder if they should be so frank in front of Nanda:

Vanderbank, for a minute and with a special short arrest, took in the circle.  “Should you call us ‘mixed’?  There’s only one girl.”  (Book Eighth)

That girl is Nanda.  Since Aggie is married, she is no longer a girl.  The logic of the sexual talk being appropriate if in front of only one girl escapes me, but I was in the state of this fellow:

“Mercy on us, what are you talking about?  That’s what I want to know!” Mr. Cashmore vivaciously declared. (a page earlier)

Everything shocking is so tightly coded that it was only the sudden concern about Nanda that made me understand that the rhetorically rarified conversation had moved onto dangerous ground.  This is the first climax of the novel, this discussion of whether a nineteen-year-old woman has read Zola’s Nana, or whatever the book is meant to be:

“She brought it only for me to read,” Tisha gravely interposed.

Mrs. Brook looked strange.  “Nanda recommended it?” [Mrs. Brook is Nanda’s mother]

“Oh no – the contrary.”  Tishy, as if scared by so much publicity, floundered a little.  “She only told me –“

“The awful subject?” Mrs. Brook wailed.

Mrs. Brook frequently wails.

Earlier in The Awkward Age, dirty French novels – different ones, though – are described as “particularly dreadful” because of their “morbid modernity”, but still (Mrs. Brook is speaking):

 “But for abject, horrid, unredeemed vileness from beginning to end –”

“So you read to the end?” Mr. Mitchett interposed.

“I read to see what you could possibly have sent such things to me for, and because so long as they were in my hands they were not in the hands of others.  Please to remember in future that the children are all over the place, and that Harold and Nanda have their nose in everything.” (Book Second)

Thus the horror, much later, possibly even sincere, that Nanda has actually read one of these books.  Harold, her brother, now he is hopeless, completely rotten, beyond rescue.

My reason for reading to the end of The Awkward Age is not so different than that of Mrs. Brook.  Maybe I have two more days on this strange novel.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

“I sometimes think in effect you’re incapable of anything straightforward.” - The Awkward Age is difficult

“I sometimes think in effect you’re incapable of anything straightforward.”  (Ch. 31)

The Awkward Age (1899) is the most difficult Henry James text I have ever read, and I predict the hardest I will ever read.  It is a genuine avant-garde performance.  I think it is the most difficult 19th century novel I have read (edit and second thought: most difficult novel in prose).

The novel is primarily in the form of speech, mostly dialogues, as if it were an enormous play.  I would love to know what proportion of the text is between quotation marks.  But there is also some scene-setting, some descriptions of characters, quite a lot of speech inflection (“he almost musingly repeated,” Ch. 21), and occasional instructions to the reader from the narrator.  There is no interiority of thought whatsoever, so the novel is built on opposite principles from The Golden Bowl (1904).

It is something like William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1955) or J.R. (1975), decades earlier, and thankfully at half the length.  There is some action, including a climactic scene where characters wrestle over a dirty French novel, like Zola’s Nana.

Most of the scenes involve two characters gossiping about a third character, and her relations with a fourth.

“We discuss everything and every one – we’re always discussing each other.  I think we must be rather celebrated for it, and it’s a kind of trick – isn’t it? that’s catching.  But don’t you think it’s the most interesting kind of talk?”  (Ch. 12)

What a blessing it is that people now have television.

Characters constantly interrupt each other, finishing sentences or interjecting questions.  They deploy the vaguest possible nouns at every opportunity – “he,” “that,” “it.”  They frequently ask each other what they mean, which should help, but is often more confusing.

“Well,” said Vanderbank, “how did she put it?”

Mrs. Brook reflected – recovered it.  “’I like him awfully, but I’m not in the least his idea.’”

“His idea of what?”

“That’s just what I asked her.”  (Ch. 14)

Characters frequently compliment each other.  Maybe these are not compliments.  They frequently describe each other with complimentary language:

“He cares more for her,” he presently added, “even than we do.”

Mrs. Brook gazed away at the infinite of space.  “’We,’ my dear Van,” she at last returned, “is one of your own, real wonderful touches.”

[snip snip snip, but same page]

It was as if he could not at last but show himself really struck; yet what he exclaimed on was what might in truth most have impressed him.  “You are magnificent, really!”  (Ch. 21)

Even the narrator gets in the game.  “Mitchy was splendid” (Ch. 32), apparently meant to describe his manner of speaking.  For the most part, I have little idea what James means when he or his characters use such words.  A number of my notes are along the lines of “gibberish” or “what are they gibbering about.”  I was amused to discover that Edmund Wilson, a much more knowledgeable and serious reader of James than I am, called the characters “this disemboweled gibbering crew.”  I wish I had thought of “disemboweled.”

I want to spend a couple more days on this novel.  Its difficulties give me unusually good opportunities for large errors.

Friday, January 20, 2017

all his little ways and little secrets - James attacks shallow magazine editors in "John Delavoy"

“John Delavoy” is another Henry James tale from 1898 with a questionably reliable narrator, even though this one is a pure stand-in for Henry James.  I do not think he is meant to be unreliable, although he is more reticent than usual, fitting the theme of this surprisingly angry, polemical story.

James Chester, reading it a couple of years ago, wrote that the characters “sound like mouth pieces for the author rather than people, even people in a Henry James story.”  True.  The reason to read it is to find out what James thinks, which maybe goes against the theme.

John Delavoy was a writer of exquisite but smutty fiction.  Smutty, at least, in the view of Mr. Beston, a magazine editor, who will not publish even a summary of Delavoy’s work but is dying to publish something, because of Delavoy’s celebrity.  The narrator and the writer’s sister, who possesses the only portrait of Delavoy, collude with and then resist the editor.  Perhaps they marry at the end.

James had, in 1896, written a piece, at his death, on Alexandre Dumas fils, which was rejected by an editor as “shocking to their prudery”; thus James’s anger and thus the germ of the story, which is better described in James’s notebook than in the story itself:

They want to seem to deal with him because he is famous – and he is famous because he wrote certain things which they won’t for the world have intelligibly mentioned. So they desire the supreme though clap-trap tribute of an intimate picture, without even the courage of saying on what ground they desire any mention of him at all.

Doesn’t changing the writer from French to English stave in the effect?  Who could be a possible equivalent in English?  Thomas Hardy gave up novels in part because he was sick of the magazine censorship.  I will just imagine that Delavoy is a Frenchified Hardy.  Or a London Zola, whatever that would be like.  Of course, James gives little idea about Delavoy’s work, not a line, not a book title.  The editor says that he wrote about “’the relations of the sexes,’” which is a bit vague, but even a summary of the author’s best book “’would have cost me five thousand subscribers.’”

Even if the prudery has withered, James’s complaint about the preference for celebrity over art still stings.

“’[The editor] wants – what do they call the stuff? – anecdotes, glimpses, gossip, chat; a picture of [Dealvoy’s] ‘home life,’ domestic habits, diet, dress, arrangements – all his little ways and little secrets, and even, to better it still, all your own, your relations with him, your feelings about him, his feelings about you: both his and yours, in short, about anything else you can think of.”

The “else” being Delavoy’s work, his art.  Anything but that.

James is engaged in a futile act of self-defense here.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

it beat every novel in the shop - In the Cage by Henry James

By chance, I read a second Henry James story with a working-class protagonist, possibly the only other one, In the Cage (1898) a ninety-page novella about – well, to return to my information management idea, here is the opening sentence:

It had occurred to her early that in her position – that of a young person spending, in framed and wired confinement, the life of a guinea-pig or a magpie – she should know a great many persons without their recognising the acquaintance.

The heroine never gets a name, although soon after the novel ends (“next week”) she will become Mrs. Mudge, and if that’s an improvement, no wonder James hides her name.  We see the cage of the title, but what is it?  It is a telegraph office; the young woman is a telegraph girl.  Although perhaps out of his element, James builds the story around a setting he would have observed closely many times.  Maybe that partly explains why Casamassima’s Hyacinth was a bookbinder, working in the kind of shop James likely visited himself.

This particular telegraph office is in a gourmet grocery store, so that it was “pervaded not a little, in winter, by the poison of perpetual gas, and at all times by the presence of hams, cheese, dried fish, soap, varnish, paraffin, and other solids and fluids that she came to know perfectly by their smells without consenting to know them by their names” (Ch. 1).  Thus, her office has a gourmet clientele; thus she entangles herself in the extramarital affair of two upper-class clients.  “They were in danger, they were in danger, Captain Everard and Lady Bradeen; it beat every novel in the shop” (Ch. 12).

The telegraphist goes so far as to continually delay her own marriage, to Mr. Mudge, because of her interest in the soap opera, which may involve the semi-subconscious desire for Captain Everard, who is so tall, and polite, and played by Hugh Grant in the hypothetical film version: “There were moments when he actually struck her as on her side, arranging to help, to support, to spare her” (Ch. 4).

“In the Cage” is from the same year as “The Turn of the Screw,” a clue that the heroine may be seeing some things that are not there, especially regarding her own importance in the story.  Not that it is all her own invention.  Just that her emphasis is too strong.

Today, the story would be turned into a thriller, with the cad enticing and seducing the telegraph girl in pursuance of some pointless scheme until the inevitable chase scene which ends when he is skewered on a giant telegraph needle.  Or maybe he is captured when he is locked in the cage – how ironic!

The workings of the telegraph office are quite interesting, the young woman’s restlessness sympathetic, and the original U.K. cover outstanding.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

“Ah, well, there’ll be plenty later on to give him all information!” - Princess Casamassima's information management

Going into The Princess Casamassima, I had no idea what to expect, aside from the watery connection to a Turgenev novel.  Fiction writing is a kind of information management, and the first chapter of Casamassima is an outstanding example.  A deliberate experiment on James’s part, I assume.  What if I --?

First sentence:

“Oh yes, I daresay I can find the child, if you would like to see him,” Miss Pynsent said; she had a fluttered wish to assent to every suggestion made by her visitor, whom she regarded as a high and rather terrible personage.

Three characters, two present, one nearby.  The next line has paper patterns and “snippings of stuff” –Miss Pynsent is a dress-maker, at home.  The personage, Mrs. Bowerbank, is probably a client (wrong).  Miss Pynsent “was very much flushed, partly with the agitation of what Mrs. Bowerbank had told her.”  What had Mrs. Bowerbank told her?

The child is pretty, and is likely outside staring into the window of a candy shop.  Miss Pynsent herself “lived on tea and watercress.”  There is a hint about the child’s parentage, I see now, he liked to look at the illustrated magazines in the shop window, especially “the noble characters.”  An eight year-old girl is introduced who will be important later, as a source of hope and despair.  All of this turns out to be important.

Over “tea” (of the brandy kind), Mrs. Bowerbank discusses her sister, and undertaker brother-in-law, and so on.  Is any of this important?

Her sister had nine children and she herself had seven, the eldest of whom she left in charge of the others when she went to her service.  She was on duty at the prison only during the day…

I am only on page 3, but for me that was the first of several upsettings of expectation in the chapter.  Prison!  It is a story with not a twist ending, but a series of twist beginnings.  Poor Miss Pynsent is raising little Hyacinth but is in no way related to him.  “’That would have seemed for most people a reason for not adopting a prostitute’s bastard’” (Ch. 2) – actual line from a Henry James novel.  Mrs. Bowerbank is not having a dress adjusted, but is delivering a message from Hyacinth’s mother, who is dying in prison, because she “’stabbed his lordship in the back with a very long knife’” (Ch. 1).  Hyacinth knows nothing about his true parentage, but a sharp kid seems to have intuited certain pieces.

All of this I have to piece together bit by bit, as I do in any novel, but James deliberately sets little traps.

Then she said, as if it were as cheerful an idea as, in the premises, she was capable of expressing: “Ah, well, there’ll be plenty later on to give him all information!”

After the first few chapters, James leaps forward.  Hyacinth is an adult, the prison is a memory, and a mostly new cast gathers.  The book begins to resemble more closely what I had expected from a James novel.  At first, though, James made me work.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Everything suggested this or that - The Princess Casamassima's descriptions

Henry James includes far more descriptive writing in The Princess Casamassima than I have ever seen in his work.  Clothes, interior decoration – “the tattered wall-paper, which, representing blocks of marble with beveled edges, in streaks and speckles of black and gray, had not been renewed for years” (Ch. 4)

Or, since the book is about working-class radicals, working-class London people:

He liked the people who looked as if they had got their week’s wages and were prepared to lay it out discreetly; and even those whose use of it would plainly be extravagant and intemperate; and, best of all, those who evidently hadn’t received it at all and who wandered about, disinterestedly, vaguely, with their hands in empty pockets, watching others make their bargains and fill their satchels, or staring at the striated sides of bacon, at the golden cubes and triangles of cheese, at the graceful festoons of sausage, in the most brilliant of the windows.  (Ch. 5)

When James turns to things – the food – he is not half as original as contemporaries like Zola.  But as a description of people, this is quite good.  The passage is representative of James’s attitude.  He is describing types, not individuals.  There is always a strain of generalization.

The next line is practically stolen from the beginning of Bleak House – “the carboniferous London damp”!

The “He” that begins that sentence is the protagonist, Hyacinth, so he is the one observing London payday, alongside James.  A later passage, a four-page paragraph showing Hyacinth’s state of mind, is also about London, now at night:

Bedraggled figures passed in and out, and a damp, tattered, wretched man, with a spongy, purple face, who had been thrust suddenly across the threshold, stood and whimpered in the brutal blaze of the row of lamps.  The puddles glittered roundabout, and the silent vista of the street, bordered with low black houses, stretched away, in the wintry drizzle, to right and left, losing itself in the huge tragic city, where unmeasured misery lurked beneath the dirty night, ominously, monstrously, still, only howling, in its pain, in the heated human cockpit behind him.  (Ch. 21)

With the name hidden, I would never guess that the author of that passage was Henry James.  Now there is an individual man, before the description, again very much in Hyacinth’s language, becomes more general and emotional.

Curiously, in an earlier scene at which Hyacinth was not present, two Italians abuse – or praise? – the English.  Prince Casamassima is tormented by his wife’s slumming with radicals: “The Prince mused for a while, and then he said, ‘How can she bear the dirt, the bad smell?’”

He is told that the English are not like the Romans:

“Every one has a sponge, as big as your head; you can see them in shops.”

“They are full of gin; their faces are purple,” said the Prince…  (Ch. 18)

Then, a few chapters later, there is the spongy, purple fellow.

I don’t know.  As Hyacinth thinks, “Everything in the field of observation suggested this or that; everything struck him, penetrated, stirred; he had, in a word, more impressions than he knew what to do with – felt sometimes as if they would consume or asphyxiate him” (Ch. 10).  No surprise that his politics are eventually overwhelmed by art.

Monday, January 16, 2017

the bastard of a murderess, spawned in a gutter - that's how Henry James writes in The Princess Casamassima - too shocking

The Princess Casamassima (1885-6) is the Henry James novel about radical politics, anarchist assassinations, and book-binding.  The latter surprised me.  Henry James has so many stories starring and about writers; finally, here is one about, forget the writers, books.

The novel is built from books.  It is inspired directly by Ivan Turgenev’s longest novel, Virgin Soil (1877), which is also about radical politics, a bunch of inept Russian revolutionaries who blow their big chance, assuming they had one.  The protagonist’s great discovery is that his political beliefs are, quoting myself, “hopelessly compromised by his inherent Romanticism.”

Turgenev worried that Virgin Soil was too influenced by Dickens.  Casamassima contains several chapters that seem like direct imitations of Dickens.  They are pretty good as such, but I think some of the problems with the novel are clear enough.  Why read a Dickens knockoff rather than Dickens or a Turgenev knockoff ditto.  And what does James know about the working-class people who make up one mob of characters, or the international revolutionists who form another, or for that matter the Italian princess in the title?  Not his circles.

But that Italian princess is actually an American, one who was born in Europe and never been in America, in other words, as I know from many earlier works of James, extremely dangerous.  She is estranged from her husband and slumming in revolutionary politics, or perhaps her interest is really young, good-looking male revolutionaries.

The important one, the protagonist, is Hyacinth Robinson, “the bastard of a murderess, spawned in a gutter, out of which he had been picked by a sewing girl” (Ch. 35).  Does that sound like a line from a Henry James novel?  Shocking stuff.

Hyacinth is “a youth on whom nothing was lost,” so a real Henry James character.  What is a James character doing in a London pub, arguing with anarchists?  It turns out that Hyacinth’s education is insufficient.  There was only so much that poor, well-meaning sewing girl could do.  Hyacinth only becomes himself when he learns not to want to “destroy” the “society that surrounded him,” but to love “the wonderful, precious things it had produced… the brilliant, impressive fabric it had raised” (Ch. 29).

His Bildung becomes complete on a trip to – guess where – c’mon, guess.  No, it is too easy.  Italy, of course, on a trip to Italy, especially Venice – “what an enchanted city, what ineffable impressions, what a revelation of the exquisite!” (Ch. 30).

The foreign travel scenes are quite interesting.  Lots of scenes are interesting, even if the novel is as a whole a hodgepodge, likely pretty much improvised during serialization as an experiment in subject and style rather than an argument about political aesthetics.  The Princess Casamassima is even more of fairy tale than most novels, from the title onward.

Look at this sentence, those Jamesian names:

Hyacinth and Mr. Vetch carried her bier, with the help of Eustache Poupin and Paul Muniment.  (Ch. 28)

It is like something from an A. A. Milne competitor, like a Winnie-the-Pooh imitator that never caught on because it was too sad.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

"Oh, I see the connection now!" - how Kate Chopin uses Flaubert

The first time I read The Awakening, I saw the story I described yesterday.  The second time, a couple of years later, I had read a lot more (and a lot more Flaubert), and I saw the other story, about a woman who regresses to her childhood, and whose “awakening” is that of a child.  All of this is tied to her father somehow.  This story contrasts with the surface story, and in some ways contradicts it.  Complicates it, at least.

The reason I keep mentioning Flaubert is because this under-story is told mostly in a combination of memories, images, and metaphors, not at all through ordinary plotting.  It is a startling and artful method.  It is basically invisible to all but the keenest first-time readers.

The sea was quiet now, and swelled lazily in broad billows that melted into one another and did not break except upon the beach in little foamy crests that coiled back like slow, white serpents.  (Ch. 10)

Edna has been trying to learn to swim, and suddenly she can.  She is like “like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence.”  Once I am on the alert for metaphorical references to children, this seems almost like giving the game away.  Edna’s “awakening” is repeatedly described as if the heroine has just reached the age of reason, as if she is not twenty-eight but eight.

Edna’s awakening and childhood are linked to the sea, which is odd, since she grew up in Kentucky, but here’s how:

“’The hot wind beating in my face made me think – without any connection that I can trace – of a summer day in Kentucky, of a meadow that seemed as big as the ocean to the very little girl walking through the grass, which was higher than the waist.  She threw out her arms as if swimming when she walked, beating the tall grass as one strikes out in the water.  Oh, I see the connection now!’”  (Ch. 7)

She wonders if she was “’running away from prayers… read in a spirit of gloom by my father that chills me yet to think of it’” – the father always appears somewhere.  Edna does not see all of the connections.  Note that we are a few chapters back, before Edna learns to swim in a sea that smells like “new-plowed earth, mingled with the heavy perfume of a field of white blossoms somewhere near” (back in Ch. 10).  All of this is tied to Edna’s love life, too, her childhood crushes through her loveless marriage.  Again, I have to follow the imagery, not what Edna is doing.

Those serpents, for example.  “The foamy wavelets curled up to her white feet, and coiled like serpents around her ankles.”  Now I am in the last chapter, a few lines from the end of the book.  Chopin has paraphrased her earlier line, bringing the serpents back, moving the color to Edna, who has regressed even more – “She felt like some new-born creature.”  The meadow is mentioned; her father is mentioned; some other thematic elements are mentioned.  A new theme appears in the last sentence – “There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air” – which must mean something new, since there were no bees or pinks until now.

Reading The Awakening for the third time now, after a gap of twenty-five years, the under-story still seems full of fresh ambiguities.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

who did not know she was awake - Kate Chopin's The Awakening

I was assigned Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) twice in college, once in American Literature II out of a big Norton anthology, and later in a class on Southern fiction writers.  This was, I now know, the period just after the novel’s “rediscovery,” its reclamation by feminist critics from the dismissive label of “local color,” so lots of teachers were assigning it and discovering how it worked in class.

Why Kate Chopin, with her fiction about New Orleans, was a regionalist, a “local color” writer, while Gustave Flaubert, with his fiction about rural Normandy, was not, is a mystery to me.

I poke at Flaubert because The Awakening is a first-rate example of an American trying to “do” Flaubert, in fact the purest example I know.  Long-time, and I hope medium-time, and surely even a few short-time readers of Wuthering Expectations know that I am not referring to the adultery plots of these novels but to questions of style.  Kate Chopin understood the style of Flaubert, and most importantly understood it the way I understand it.

Chopin tells the story of Edna Pontellier, a Kentucky girl who has married into New Orleans society.  Now she is 28 and something is off.  She has never thought of herself as an especially good wife or mother, not compared to some of the women in her circle.  But as the novel begins, something else happens.  The wives are at the beach, on a Gulf Coast island, accompanied by idle young men from respectable families, which is not a violation of New Orleans mores, but is trouble for Pontellier, who is an outsider.

Out on these islands, away from her husband, at the side of a young rake, something happens to Pontellier, the awakening of the title.  In Chapter 13, it is literal, the aftermath of a long nap.

She was very hungry.  No one was there.  But there was a cloth spread upon the table that stood against the wall, and a cover was laid for one, with a crusty brown loaf and a bottle of wine beside the plate.  Edna bit a piece from the brown loaf, tearing it with her strong, white teeth.  She poured some of the wine into the glass and drank it down.  Then she went softly out of doors, and plucking an orange from the low-hanging bough of a tree, threw it at Robert, who did not know she was awake and up.

An illumination broke over his whole face when he saw her and joined her under the orange tree.

“How many years have I slept?” she inquired.

It is as if Pontellier is passing through a religious initiation, in which she is, symbolically, Eve – that orange, or perhaps she is joining the Freemasons.  All of this looks more symbolically blatant on re-reading.  Edna makes a series of decisions that declare her independence from her conventional role; the later adulterous affair is merely a symptom, as is drinking a beer by herself.

She rummaged in the larder and brought forth a slice of “Gruyère” and some crackers.  She opened a bottle of beer which she found in the icebox.  (Ch. 24)

For some reason that bit has stuck with me for twenty-five years, perhaps because it involves cheese.

No one understands what has happened to Pontellier.

“Has she,” asked the Doctor, with a smile, “has she been associating of late with a circle of pseudo-intellectual women – super-spiritual superior being?  My wife has been telling me about them.”  (Ch. 22)

No, not that.  Still, this cannot end well.  What room does Edna have to move, to do anything on her own?

That is more or less the novel I saw the first time I read it.  The first layer.

Friday, January 13, 2017

sweet, printed books, / bright, glancing, exquisite corn - Lawrence writes sequences of poems in Look! We have come through!

Look! We have come through!, a 1917 book of poems by D. H. Lawrence, his third, but also his ninth book if I am counting right.  Four novels, short stories, travel, etc.  What a phenomenon.

Look! What a terrible title!  Lawrence’s poems are often beyond good and bad, and this book is more beyond than the previous two.  Plus it has more bad poems.  It is also a poetry book with a concept,

an essential story, or history, or confession, unfolding one from the other in organic development, the whole revealing the intrinsic experience of a man during the crisis of manhood, when he marries and comes into himself.  The period covered is, roughly, the sixth lustre of a man’s life.  (“Foreword”)

These are mostly honeymoon poems, when David and Frieda were wandering about Europe in 1912.  None of the poems are about the incident where he was arrested as a spy, unfortunately.

One representative bad bit, just for laughs:

A woman has given me strength and affluence.
Admitted!

All the rocking wheat of Canada, ripening now,
has not so much strength as the body of one woman
sweet in ear, nor so much to give
though it feeds nations.  (Manifesto I,” ll. 1-6)

I have long argued that All the Rocking Wheat of Canada (Neil Young & the Rocking Wheat, 1983) is the most underrated Neil Young album.  As a metaphor, though, it is pretty silly.  The “Manifesto” sequence is built on a series of hungers, including, in the third poem, for books, which is heartwarming:

man’s sweetest harvest of the centuries, sweet, printed books,
bright, glancing, exquisite corn of many a stubborn
glebe in the upturned darkness (III, ll. 6-8)

Then sex, the “hunger for the woman” (IV), and finally the “ache for being” (VI), ending with an apotheosis as men, free from hunger, become like angels and flowers, with emotions “like music, sheer utterance.”

We shall not look before and after.
We shall be, now.We shall know in full.
We, the mystic NOW.  (VIII, last lines)

That is the kind of D. H. Lawrence poem I read with a lot of skepticism.

“Manifesto” is a kind of sequence poem, which is the great innovation of Look! We have come though!  There is a set of Bavarian poems, a set of “night” poems,” a set of “rose” poems.  Single poems become stronger as parts of longer arguments.  Wild roses found on a walk, where the “simmering / Frogs were singing” (“River Roses”), suggest a comparison the next morning while watching his wife bathes, that the parts of her body are roses (“her shoulders / Glisten as silver, they crumple up / Like wet and falling roses,” “Gloire de Dijon”), then, picked, reappear on the breakfast table where “their mauve-red petals on the cloth / Float like boats on a river” (“Roses on a Breakfast Table”).  Individual poems can be minor, individual images banal, with the theme-and-variation creating most of the meaning.

At this point the sequences are more likely to be semi-formal, rhymed and so on.  Not true of the “tortoise” sequence, a few years in the future, although one poem in the “night” sequence, “Rabbit Snared in the Night,” sounds like the tortoise poems.

What are you waiting for?
What are you waiting for?
What is the hot, plumb weight of your desire on me?
You have a hot, unthinkable desire of me, bunny.

Oh Lawrence is so weird.  I mean, the bunny is in some sense Frieda, I know.  Still.  I read Look! We have come though! as much in anticipation of, preparation for, the poems Lawrence would soon write as for those he actually was writing.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

for we came to believe that it had a soul and that it was in hell - Mark Twain's The Devil's Race-Track

The Devil’s Race-Track: Mark Twain’s Great Dark Writings, University of California Press, 1980, and how can you resist a book that tells you right in the title that the contents are great?  It’s a sure thing.

Personally, I thought the contents were varied in quality – varied in “dark,” too – but absolutely fascinating.  The book consists entirely of writing from a narrow period (1896-1908) unpublished by Twain, sometimes because of its irreligious content, often because the piece was unfinished, and if it was unfinished it was likely because Twain had written himself into a dark, weird corner.

The book is a way to see Twain’s mind at work during a period of crisis.  Twain had gone bankrupt, and while on a worldwide lecture tour to recover his fortune, his daughter, at home in Hartford, died of spinal meningitis.  Twain’s wife began to suffer from serious health problems and would die in 1904.  Twain was never exactly a ray of sunshine, but one result of his suffering was this body of savage, angry, fearful unpublished writing.

The core of the book is a series of linked, unfinished, symbolically charged writings in which Twain keeps returning to stories he doesn’t know how, or doesn’t want, to finish.  A beloved dog alerts a ship’s crew that the ship is on fire, saving them, but the captain leaves the dog behind to die.  A ship becomes trapped in an endless current, The Devil’s Race-Track, and somehow escapes only to find itself in an area of perfect calm, “a trap; and that trap was the Everlasting Sunday” (“The Enchanted Sea-Wilderness,” 34).  The compass not only does not work, but

acted like a frightened thing, a thing in frantic fear for its life.  And so we got afraid of it, and could not bear to look at its distress and its helpless struggles; for we came to believe that it had a soul and that it was in hell.  (34-5)

That is dark, and quite strange.

A father experiences great success, or else catastrophe – a house destroyed by fire, a bankruptcy – one of which is real, one a dream.  “Which Was the Dream?” is the title of that one.

Another endless sea voyage in “The Great Dark,” this time across a microscope slide, the ship constantly threatened by microscopic monstrosities.  The characters vaguely remember a different life, perhaps a dream life, in which they were regular people, on shore, perhaps looking into a microscope.

Almost a third of the book is filled by “Three Thousand Years among the Microbes.”  The narrator is transformed by a magician “into a cholera-germ when he was trying to turn me into a bird” (?) so he spends the next three thousand years (germ years, not human) in the body of the tramp Blitzkowski.  The result is something like Twain humor mixed with Calvino’s Cosmicomics:

I often think of a talk I once had upon some of these things with a friend of mine, a renowned specialist by the name of Bblbgxw, a name which I have to modify to Benjamin Franklin because it is so difficult for me to pronounce that combination right; but that is near enough anyway, because when a foreigner pronounces it it always sounds a little like Franklin, when it doesn’t sound like Smith.  (176)

Bblbgxw is a yellow-fever germ.  That tramp is in rough shape.  But in the end, it is fiction about entropy, ending – or never ending – in the Devil’s Race-Track or Everlasting Sunday, unfinished, unfinishable, sad metaphors for the writer who works through his grief in the only way he knows.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

“This is all idiotic. I’m furious.” - the Dada plays of Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes

How about something crazy.  How about a collection of the Dada plays of Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes?  The Emperor of China, The Mute Canary & The Executioner of Peru (Wakefield Press, tr. Christopher Butterfield) is the book.  1921, 1920, and 1926 are the years of the first productions, respectively.  Horrifying and preposterous nonsense, Ubu Roi with more Grand Guignol gore and the red haze of a terrible war floating over everything.

IRONIC: Oh, Equinox, there’s a war on.
EQUINOX:  Where?
IRONIC:  Over there, over there.  I’ve just come back from it.  What did I see?
[list of horrors]
There’s no more enemy.  All our soldiers are dead.  (Emperor, p. 81)

Ironic and Equinox were portrayed by puppets in the original performance.  Much of Dada was not a response to World War I – the movement contained many kinds of artists doing many kinds of things, but Ribemont-Dessaignes seems more direct to me.  Perhaps it is just the violence, the beatings and stranglings and corpses dragged around the stage.

The Executioner of Peru prefigures the Latin American dictator novel, even in its setting.  The leaders of Peru set off to catch butterflies (“a nocturnal butterfly which carries on its front right wing a little mark shaped like an eye, without a doubt the image of the creator,” 139), leaving the executioner in charge.  He proceeds on a murderous reign of terror, goaded by his Mephistophelean assistant, Love, who carries a typewriter everywhere he goes, “that bloody writing machine,” the Executioner complains, that is

worse than a blinding spotlight.  It pierces the pupils and shamelessly chops up the horizon’s little secrets for which no one is responsible…  it’s treacherous and gives life a rotten taste such as one finds only at the bottom of a well or in the wake of truth.  (207)

But the dictator is in error to worry that the truth about his terror will be exposed.  Love, prefiguring later totalitarian states, wields the typewriter like a weapon, as if he had “built a little machine gun into his typewriter so that certain letters fired bullets.”

The Executioner of Peru, the latest play of this group, is if anything too coherent.  The early plays are more Dada, more playful, more nonsensical.  The Emperor of China begins with typewriters, too (“Typists typing extremely quickly”), but they appear to be banging out random words:

TYPIST 1:  Small-town brains.
TYPIST 2:  Turnover.
TYPIST 3:  Counter calculator.
TYPIST 4:  Mail delivery.  Postman.  (7)

Character named Ironic and Equinox babble at each other like broken Beckett tramps.  “The penguin throws itself to the ground and shatters” is a typical stage direction.  As one character shouts, “This is all idiotic.  I’m furious” (94).

These plays are an expression of chaos, with only the faintest attempt to organize them into coherence.  The absence of order is felt, though, as in the symbol of the mute canary, at the center of that little play:

OCHRE:  It’s a mute canary that someone gave me.
            I whistled all my tunes to it and it learned them by heart.
BARATE:  If it can’t sing, how do you know it knows them by heart?
OCHRE:  That’s the way it is.  Even though it’s mute, by now I know that it knows all my music.
            A mute canary is very rare.  It’s an amazing, shy creature, a true friend.  (118-9)

Is this an expression of faith or despair?

Friday, January 6, 2017

it’s so pleasurable to imagine that it makes me clench my teeth slightly - Colette's Retreat from Love

Here I see the Obooki put Colette on his list of “Favourite 53 Novels.”  His specific choice is “Something… it really doesn’t matter what.”  I would like more opinions on this subject, not because I think the Obooki is wrong – the opinion seems plausible – but because I can’t read Colette’s books all at once and would like some pointers.  Not there is anything wrong with “whatever is at hand.”

What was at hand last month was Retreat from Love (1907), a lovely novel that I had read previously.  The novel has an odd history.  It’s Colette’s first book after freeing herself from her odious husband Willy, who forced his brilliant wife to churn out books in his smut factory, or something like that.  Retreat from Love is the fifth book in the Claudine series, but the first that is written without the shadow of Willy, and also the only one that I have read.

You might think that it would be helpful to know the histories of the characters and so on.  Maybe!  In Margaret Crosland’s translation, some endnotes catch me up, although I am not sure any are needed.  Claudine is living in the countryside in Jura with a friend, Annie, who “has become a despairing nymphomaniac” (3, translator’s introduction).  Claudine’s much older husband is ill and in a sanitarium.  Her stepson Marcel, almost her age, and a flaming homosexual, drops in to escape some trouble in Paris.  Marcel and Annie are both in the thrall of “young bodies,” while Claudine is devoted to an absent old one.  Mild complications ensue.

Claudine thinks about the sex life of her friend, misses her husband, gathers flowers and pine cones, and watches the animals, all of the novel’s magnificent animals:

As light as an elf, a little squirrel flies along in front of us from branch to branch.  Its russet tail fans out like smoke, its fleecy front moving up and down as he leaps along.  He’s plumper, better upholstered and richer than an angora rabbit and leans down to look at me, his forelegs wide apart, his fingernails holding on in human fashion.  His beautiful black eyes quiver with a timid effrontery, and I yearn to catch hold of him, to feel his tiny little body beneath the soft fleece; it’s so pleasurable to imagine that it makes me clench my teeth slightly.  (152)

The sensual theme of the novel is tied to the animal theme.  “A crazy bee flew by, passing so close to her mouth that she drew back and wiped her lips with the back of her hand” (205).  The people are animals, the animals, “the circle of my animal friends,” people:

all those I can’t see in the dusk, but whose mysterious footsteps I can hear: the tap-tap of the hedgehog who trots adventurously from cabbage to rose, from rose to basket of peelings – a light sound on the gravel, the sound of someone dragging a leg: it’s the slow walk f the very old toad who lives beneath the stones of the fallen wall.  Toby’s afraid of him, but Péronelle is not beneath giving a timid scratch to his grainy back with the tip if one teasing paw.  (218)

The next few lines move to a hawk moth, “transparent and quivering so violently that he seems to be his own shadow.”  The toad, eighteen months younger, can be seen in a quotation I used eight years ago.  Péronelle is back there, too.  Toby is a bull terrier who practically steals the show.

Maybe I should rephrase my request.  Which Colette books have the most animals?  I love those animals.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Tolstoy's "Father Sergius" & it's Chekovian interlude - Unkindly relations between people caused her actual physical suffering

Leo Tolstoy I think of as almost beyond influence, and the older Tolstoy would seem particularly settled in style, yet reading his novellas of the 1890s, “Master and Man” (1895) and “Father Sergius” (finished 1898, published 1911) I saw traces of Anton Chekhov.  The first could almost have been by Chekhov; the second is unmistakably Tolstoy but takes a Chekhov-like turn in its last episode, as if the title character must journey through a Chekhov story to reach his goal.  Maybe this is all an illusion, caused by the lingering flavor of Chekhov.  Tolstoy has a strong taste, too, though, right?

“Father Sergius” is the most bearable of a kind of lust trilogy, along with ethically dubious “The Kreutzer Sonata” and “The Devil” (both 1889).  In this case, the title character is a monk, a vowed celibate, so his struggles with lust are an ordinary part of his vocation, less important, usually, than – a part of – his struggles with pride.  He enters the convent in large part out of pride; he becomes a hermit out of pride; he becomes a miracle worker, healing the sick, which leads to more pride.   His constant lunges at humility control his pride, but are also perhaps sources of pride.

The most memorable scene is one of Father Sergius’s struggle with lust.  A rich woman tries, on a dare, basically, to seduce the monk, and in his struggles with lust he – if this story were really written alongside “The Kreutzer Sonata” he would murder her – he does something similarly shocking, but only to himself.  As for the shocked woman, “[a] year later she entered a convent as a novice” (Ch. III).

In a later moment of suicidal despair, Sergius for some reason remembers a girl he knew and bullied as a child, Pashenka.  As an act of contrition he makes a pilgrimage to visit her, an ordinary woman.  “She presented herself to him as a means of salvation” (Ch. V).  How a poor grandma who gives music lessons to get by can save him is a puzzle, but he cuts his hair and tramps “as a beggar” to her home, confesses his sins, and then – well, it is still a puzzle.

This is the Chekhovian section, Chapter VI.  “Unkindly relations between people caused her actual physical suffering.”  But she is no saint:

“Mamma!” – her daughter’s voice interrupted her – “Take Mitya!  I can’t be in two places at once.”

Praskovya Mikhaylovna shuddered, but rose and went out of the room, stepping quickly in her patched shoes.  She soon came back with a boy of two in her arms, who threw himself backwards and grabbed at her shawl with his little hands.

“Shuddered” is a tough, fine touch.  Grandma can’t have one minute alone with the holy man.  It is not exactly that this episode sounds like Chekhov, but rather that I can imagine the story from the family’s point of view – the day the famous monk dropped by – that would be the Chekhov story.

The monk’s story is that he is somehow converted to ordinary life.  “’I lived for men on the pretext of living for God, while she lives for God imagining that she lives for men.’”  It is hardly clear that this is true, but it sets Sergius on a new path.  “And little by little God began to reveal Himself within him.”  I suppose this gets him where he wants to go.

The quotations are from the Maude translation, in Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Abraham Cahan brings Chekhov to the Lower East Side - A nightmare of desolation and jealousy choked her

I ended 2016 with some of Chekhov’s last stories, astounding things.  Make sure your collection has both “Peasants” and “In the Ravine.”  Maybe you’ll need more than one book.  That’s fine.  Read them together, and write a blog post; it will likely be among your best.  I don’t have anything else to say about these stories, but you will.  I look forward to reading it.

I will do something easier and write about imitation Chekhov.  Abraham Cahan, the titanic Yiddish-language journalist, was a champion of Chekhov’s in the United States, long before Chekhov was translated.  Cahan’s first book of English-language fiction, Yekl, A tale of the New York Ghetto (1896) was pretty good, but he is sharper and sadder in his second, The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of Yiddish New York (1898), and maybe one reason is that he lets himself imitate the best.

In “The Imported Bridegroom,” Flora is assimilating quickly – “She sat in her rocker, in front of the parlor stove, absorbed in Little Dorrit” – “the only girl of her circle who would read Dickens, Scott or Thackeray.”  Her father returns to Russia to visit the graves of his parents, and in a fit of piety buys his daughter a husband, a great scholar, a prodigy.  The bidding scenes are worth seeing – the bridegroom, a rare and valued specimen, is sold at auction.

Flora wants to marry a doctor, not a Talmudist; the father wants a son-in-law to say Kaddish; the prodigy is maybe not as interested in the Talmud as he first appears, not once he learns English and discovers the Astor Library.  Yes, he will study to be a doctor, and Flora gets her husband, but by the end of the story the prodigy is already moving on, now to socialism.  The ending could be from Chekhov:

A nightmare of desolation and jealousy choked her – jealousy of the Scotchman’s book, of the Little-Russian shirt, of the empty tea-glasses with the slices of lemon on their bottoms, of the whole excited crowd, and of Shaya’s entire future, from which she seemed excluded.

The short stories in the book share some of the themes – “A Providential Match,” “A Sweatshop Romance” – and settings.  Hopes are dashed; people discover they are weaker than they had realized.

In “A Ghetto Wedding,” a grindingly poor couple have a lavish wedding in the hope that they will come out ahead on the gifts.  It does not work out.  It is a painful piece of comedy.  They cannot even take a cab to their new, empty apartment.  They are almost assaulted on the street.  Only the author is still with them at the end of the story, giving them this final little gift:

A gentle breeze ran past and ahead of them, proclaiming the bride and the bridegroom.  An old tree whispered overhead its tender felicitations.

Yes, the book ends with one of Chekhov’s sentient trees, another gift from one writer to another.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Book reading indeed requires good intentions - Wuthering Expectations in 2017

Don‘t deliberate too long before you begin to write a sketch.  All kinds of nice ideas can disappear, never to be seen again.  On the other hand, I advise you not to tremble in the face of months, years even, of procrastination, since there’s something quite formative and educational in waiting.

Such good advice from Robert Walser, as found in his 1933 sketch “Something about Eating,” as found in Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories (2016).  I always flail around a lot after a break, as if I have forgotten how to write.

The reading and writing on Wuthering Expectations, now in the winter of its tenth year, will likely look much like it did last year, for a time, at least.  More American literature, more Henry James, more poetry circa World War I.  The chronological drift continues, though, so more of the James will be the dreaded, beloved Late James.  The war poetry will become post-war poetry.  Books from 18XX will become more rare, books from 190X more common.

Twelve or so years ago I began reading 19th century literature intensely, reading through it with a chronological bias – not neurosis, I hope – in order to see how the pieces of the different literary traditions fit together, and how the traditions bumped against each other.  When I started Wuthering Expectations I was just leaving the 1830s, and thus writing about Balzac, Poe, and early Dickens.  Now I am looking forward to the end of the long 19th, the years before the war.  Conrad, Wharton, James; Lawrence, Kafka, Proust.

I spent some time reading Yiddish, Scottish, Portuguese, Scandinavian, Austrian, and Italian literature as a way to study those traditions from a different direction, separated from the drift.  These literatures are small – I mean, in the 19th century and especially in English – and manageable.  The chronological drift was really determined by British, French, American, and Russian literature.

For whatever reason, last year my reading of poetry raced forward into the 1910s.  The story these books of poems are telling remains exciting.  Even the early books of a diehard second-rater like Conrad Aiken, who aspired to the condition of music and thus labeled his poems “symphonies” and “nocturnes” and such nonsense, have been deeply interesting as part of the larger story of poetic Modernism.  So it is likely that I will drift into the 1920s.  Lorca, Eliot, Vallejo, WCW, Rilke, Moore, Yeats, Jeffers – what happened next? is what I keep asking.

The number of books published 18XX that I am excited about reading now and in reality, rather than someday and theoretically, has gotten pretty small.  But I am about ten percent of the way into War and Peace, which I have not read for a long time, in part because I have doubts about its bloggability, and it is among other things making me excited to reread Anna Karenina.  There are no rules here.

Book reading indeed requires good intentions…  I must stress, incidentally, that very few contemporary books, books of today, fall into my hands.

That’s Walser again, from “A Woman’s Book.” “The reader might note that none of this is so terribly significant.”  So true.