Sunday, March 26, 2017

Twain abolishes himself - There would have been results! Indeed yes.

Harper’s Bazar asked a number of authors to write on the topic “The Turning Point of My Life.”  I believe Twain’s response was his last published piece (Feb. 1910) during his lifetime.  It was not quite the last thing he wrote – that was the almost unreadable “The Death of Jean” (Christmas 1909), a howl of pain on the sudden death of his youngest daughter.

A month ago I was writing bubbling and hilarious articles for magazines yet to appear, and now I am writing – this.

So, back to the bubbles.  “Turning Point” does include, briefly, an account of Twain’s career – how I became a writer – but it is just one more data point in his decade-long argument about determinism.  All events, all endeavors, are the result of circumstance and temperament, itself pre-determined by who knows what.  We do what we do because we are the way we are, moving within a vast chain of events outside our control.  Twain became a writer because Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon – it’s a long, long chain – and because Adam ate the apple and because Sam Clemens had the measles when he was twelve.

The whole village was interested, and anxious, and sent for news of me every day; and not only once a day, but several times.  Everybody believed I would die; but on the fourteenth day a change came for the worse and they were disappointed. (932)

And there were other steps, similarly unplanned, that made Twain a printer, or a riverboat pilot, or a silver miner, or a humor writer.

Leaving the Rubicon incident away back where it belongs, I can say with truth that the reason I am in the literary profession is because I had the measles when I was twelve-years-old. (935)

“Turning Point” is the friendly, public face of Twain’s fatalism, laid out in tedious detail in the What Is Man? pamphlet (1906), a Platonic dialogue in which the Old Man browbeats the Young Man into scientistic, psychologistic determinism, man as not a higher animal, but a middlin’ animal, somewhere below the ants.

As is normal in a Platonic dialogue, the victim sticks to the examples, rather than going after the premises, in this case taking a long time to realize that he is trapped in a logically closed system where examples are useless, even when the Old Man openly admits this to the case.  Having once sought the Truth, and having believed that he has found it,

[t]he rest of my days will be spent in patching and painting and puttying and caulking my priceless possession, and in looking the other way when an imploring argument or damaging fact approaches.  (781)

Refreshing!  Determinism is Twain’s solution, to his own psychological satisfaction, to the problem of evil.  His late life obsession with Satan and Bible stories is part of his writing on theodicy.  Twain does not seem to want God and creation to be evil, so he prefers to abolish free will.  It’s all out of our hands.  The great problem with this strain of Twain’s writing is that he mostly seems to be arguing with idiots, like the Young Man in his dialogue.  Sunday school fundamentalists who do not understand their own arguments.  I see why these people are frustrating; still, maybe it would be better to give up arguing with strangers on Facebook, so to speak.

On the other hand, who does this with more spirit and laughs than Twain?  He ends “Turning Point” with an alternative world, in which the first man is Martin Luther and woman Joan of Arc, “equipped with temperaments not made of butter, but of asbestos,” who resist Satan, and God.

There would have been results!  Indeed yes.  The apple would be intact to-day: there would be no human race; there would be no you; there would be no me.  And the old, old creation-dawn scheme of ultimately launching me into the literary guild would have been defeated.  (938)

Twain ends his career – this is the end of the piece – by abolishing himself.  This is how the Library of America Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1891-1910 ends.  It is a bold move, and cosmically funny.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

“Is the bull-fight a religious service?” - late Twain parodies Sherlock Holmes and I don't know what else

Two examples now of books Twain did finish in his old age, two miniature novels, A Double Barreled Detective Story (1902) and A Horse’s Tale (1906).  “Books,” “novels.”  I was confused for a while.  In editions of Twain’s Complete Stories, these texts are forty or fifty pages long – were those abridgments?  No, these pieces were published as little “books” with huge margins and almost no words per page.  I read them both in the Google Books scans of the original editions, mostly to see the illustrations, and boy did the pages fly by, in the electronic sense.

The illustrations are not worth seeking out, unfortunately.  That is Sherlock Holmes in the upper left corner, threatened by American frontier mob justice.  A Double Barreled Detective Story is in large part a Sherlock Holmes parody.  The famous non-fictional celebrity detective arrives in a Nevada mining town to visit his nephew – and why not – just as the nephew has determined to murder his employer:

“Uncle Sherlock!  The mean luck of it! – that he should come just when…”  He dropped into a reverie, and presently said to himself: “But what’s the use of being afraid of him?  Anybody that knows him the way I do knows he can’t detect a crime, except when he plans it all out beforehand and arranges the clews and hires some fellow to commit it according to instructions.”  (p. 96, ellipses in original)

This is the conceit of the story, more or less.  Holmes makes wild, unfounded accusations, while another character, who has a kind of tracking superpower, solves the crime, to the extent that there is a crime to solve.  If only this were funnier.  The story of the super-tracker involves a lifelong, cross-continental search for revenge against his father, who tortured and humiliated the man’s mother; this story crosses paths with the Holmes story.   This story was a puzzler, even aside from the copyright issues.  Maybe something besides Holmes is being parodied.

That is definitely the case with A Horses’ Tale.  Much of it is narrated by the horse of Buffalo Bill Cody, during his days with U.S. cavalry, before the Wild West show.  Buffalo Bill is barely present.  Most of the story is about a nine-year-old Spanish orphan girl who arrives at the Western fort and instantly charms everyone, general and black servant, horse and dog.

Some of the scenes with the sweet little girl are nigh on unreadable.  I hope they are parody.

The story takes a strange turn when, for no discernible reason, a couple of characters beginning discussing Spanish bullfights in the cruelest possible fashion (“’I have laughed till the tears ran down my cheeks to see it,’” 128).  The horses discuss the bullfight, too:

“Is the bull-fight a religious service?”

“I think so.  I have heard so.  It is held on Sunday.” (130)

And one horse tells another that he is pretty sure that horses do not go to heaven with men – his father “believed we do not have to go there unless we deserve it.”  Now that is the late Twain I have gotten to know.

Suddenly –

“Oh no, I will have to avert my gaze.  The cruel critic is about to ruin – spoil, even –  this novel by revealing its suspenseful twist.”

“What?  You’re not going to read this story!  Why would you read this?  What do you care?”

“Oh you don’t know that.  I might.”

“Oh you will not.”


– suddenly the horse and little girl go to Spain, where the horse is stolen and in a single chapter suffers the torments of Lazarillo de Tormes (1554), ending in a bullfighting ring, where he is horribly, graphically, killed by a bull.  The little girl happens to be in the audience – she recognizes her beloved horse – she rushes down to the horse – she is killed by a bull!  What!  The girl had been a bugler back at the fort, and the story has quite a bit of embedded music – military bugle calls – so the story ends with “Taps.”

Twain wrote A Horse’s Tale as anti-bullfight propaganda, but boy did he have a strange way of making his case.

Friday, March 24, 2017

a vagrant Thought, a useless Thought, a homeless Thought - The Mysterious Stranger as a vehicle for Twain-stuff

For fifty years, The Mysterious Stranger, A Romance (1916) stood as Mark Twain’s final, posthumous novel.  Scholars working on the Twain archives eventually discovered that the novel was something of a fraud, a composite of several unfinished manuscripts with substantial bowdlerization and some bridging passages invented by the editor – not by Twain at all.

I haven’t read that book.  Now – by “now” I mean for the last fifty years, which does include now – the original manuscripts are available and preferable.  The editor of Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts (1969), William M. Gibson, acknowledges that the carpentered version may well make for a better novel, but it ain’t Twain.

Twain messed with the story for over a decade, from 1897 to 1908.  The basic idea is that Satan comes to Hannibal, Missouri circa 1845, where he astounds people with his magic powers and permanently corrupts or enlightens young Sam Clemens.  Everything shifts around in the different versions, though.  The town moves to Austria, where Clemens happened to be when he began writing.  The time moves to the 18th century, or to the 16th.  Twain needs people to be suitably credulous about magic.

Satan becomes his nephew, or Satan, Jr., perhaps Satan’s 44th son, thus “No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger.”  He always appears as a boy, a companion for Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, who appear in the “Schoolhouse Hill” fragment, or their early modern Austrian equivalents.

The Satan figure is always the most interesting – only interesting – character.  He is a mix of theorist, prankster, ignoramus, truth-teller, obfuscator, and paradoxologist.  He is not obviously evil, and is perhaps well-intended.

At some point in each attempt, Twain becomes obsessed and delighted with his angel’s superpowers, and spends too many pages astounding the humans.  Much of this material is inventive – a maid who is turned into a cat in “No. 44” provides a lot of fun – but dramatically static.

Same goes for the satire – the undermining of received religion and glimpses of the future:

“Two centuries from now [i.e., in 1902],” he said, “the Christian civilization will reach the highest mark.  Yet its kings will still be, then, what they are now, a close corporation of land-thieves.  Is that an advance?  England will be prodigious and strong; she will bear the most honorable name that ever a nation bore, and she will lose it in a single little shameful war and carry the blot and stench of it to the end of her days.  To please a dozen rich adventurers her statesmen will pick a quarrel with a couple of wee little Christian farmer-communities, and send against that half dozen villages the mightiest army that ever invaded any country, and will crush those little nations and rob them of their independence and their land.”  (“The Chronicle of Young Satan,” Ch. 9)

None of this is much help in finding out whether good Father Peter will escape the inquisition and bad Father Adolf get his comeuppance, which is nominally the story.  But pretty soon I was not worrying much about story, but reading these texts as a vehicle for Twain-stuff.  There was never going to be a coherent novel.  If Twain had lived longer, there would be a fourth unfinished version, and a fifth.

Twain did write an ending for “No. 44,” even if he never brought the story near it.  Here it is:

“It is true, that which I have revealed to you: there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell.  It is all a Dream, a grotesque and foolish dream.  Nothing exists but You.  And You are but a Thought – a vagrant Thought, a useless Thought, a homeless Thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!”

He vanished, and left me appalled; for I knew, and realized, that all he had said was true.

But that is Satan talking, or a near relative, and we all know how far to trust him; and in fact it is not even Satan but Mark Twain, and we all know how far to trust him.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

old Twain - a list - because I believed in him and could not think he would deceive a mere boy

What was Mark Twain writing in his old age?  I have to make a list.  It is a complex subject.  He lost interest in books, but he wrote an immense amount of stuff.

I am thinking of approximately 1900 through 1910.  Twain has returned from his successful world tour (written up as Following the Equator, 1898) which make him a mountain of money.  But his daughter died, his wife was ill, his nation won a war and its leaders chose to become the kind of imperial power Twain so despised in Europe, and Twain was finding the limits of being the world’s most famous writer.

For my own sake, some categories:

1.  The so called “dark writings,” a series of dream narratives involving ships on endless journeys, dogs dying in fires, and strange microscopic worlds that look like attempts to cope with trauma.  I read a chunk of this material in a collection titled The Devil’s Race-Track, and wrote a bit about it.  The writing is rough, not just unfinished but unfinishable – stories about endless entrapment present narrative difficulties – but the imagery and vision are original.

2.  Similarly, Twain returned several times to a cluster of ideas that emerged posthumously as The Mysterious Stranger (1916) but can now be read in the three distinct manuscripts that were mashed together to create the “novel.”  In each case, a boyish Satan figure – Satan’s 44th son, or a nephew – comes to town and upends things with his magic powers and view that humans are a kind of animal.

3.  Twain becomes obsessed with Satan, “a sacred character, being mentioned in the Bible” (“The Chronicle of Young Satan,” Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts, p. 41), and he becomes a frequent mouthpiece, a suitably distant observer of the follies of mankind.  Adam and Eve are also recurring figures.  Just as the “Mysterious Stranger” story is tied up with Twain’s Hannibal childhood, the satirical use of the Old Testament stories is a return to the Sunday school of sixty years previous.  The Sunday schools I attended in the 1970s do not sound much different that Twain’s from the 1840s.

As long as Twain did not get into sex, as in “Letters from the Earth” (1909), these stories were publishable.  Twain put a letter in Harper’s Weekly in 1905 in the voice of and signed by Satan (“A Humane Word from Satan”).

4.  Twain’s philosophy, most tediously expressed in What Is Man?, a Platonic dialogue about a purely deterministic universe.  This pamphlet, published anonymously, was dull but helpful, since it clearly states the metaphysical position that shows up everywhere in this period.  Reading this, I knew that Twain meant it.  Some of it.

5.  On the other hand, this is the time of Twain’s most active political involvement, writing scathingly and hilariously against American control of the Philippines, Christian missionaries in China, and the Belgian atrocities in the Congo.  All of this in public.  The pamphlet King Leopold’s Soliloquy: A Defense of His Congo Rule (1905) is a terrific piece of rhetoric, an inhumane word from a human Satan.

6.  “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” (1899), “The $30,000 Request” (1904) – stories about how money – the possibility of money – ruins lives.  Published in popular magazines, and again in best-selling collections.  Highly effective.  Abolished greed for a time.  Not sure what happened since.

7.  Did everyone else know about Twain’s Sherlock Holmes story, A Double Barreled Detective Story (1902)?  How did the copyright work?  Similarly curious is A Horse’s Tale (1906), much of it from the point of view of Buffalo Bill’s horse, a nasty shocker apparently designed to terrify children.

8.  Once in a while, Twain felt the urge to write a perfect, signature humor piece, just like in the old days.  Something like “Hunting the Deceitful Turkey” (1906):

I followed an ostensibly lame turkey over a considerable part of the United States one morning, because I believed in her and could not think she would deceive a mere boy, and one who was trusting her and considering her honest.

Maybe some kind of allegory in there.

I don’t know why anyone else would read this, but it was helpful to write.  I’ll poke at some of these over the next couple of days.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Gorky's Tolstoy, Gorky's Chekhov - He was wonderfully sympathetic at that moment.

Gorky’s Tolstoy and Other Reminiscences (2008) is translator and editor Donald Fanger’s replacement for an older collection title Reminiscences of Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Andreyev.  The Tolstoy section dates from 1919 and made it into English in 1920.  Gorky was a celebrity author.

Is something wrong with the old translations?  Fanger says no, but the old texts were incomplete.  These are the first English translation of the complete texts.  Fanger added some additional biographical portraits of writers and other oddballs Gorky knew, as well as four portraits of Gorky, by Khodasevich and Zamiatin and so on, plus plenty of commentary and notes.  The whole thing is still under three hundred pages.

This is a useful book.

It is easy to find the “Lev Tolstoy” described as “like a novel.”  I don’t know what novels these folks were reading.  The “Leonid Andreyev” portrait is much more like a novel.  The long night where a drunken Andreyev wants to pick up girls while Gorky tries to get him sobered up, that scene appears in a lot of novels.

The Tolstoy memoir is all anecdote and talk from about six months in 1901 and 1902.  The old literary celebrity enjoying the company of the young one.

Suddenly a hare started under our feet.  L. N. jumped up in excitement, his face flushed, and whooped like some ancient animal-hunter.  Then he looked at me with an indescribable smile and laughed a wise, very human little laugh.  He was wonderfully sympathetic at that moment.  (69)

That is not always the case.  “The subjects he talks about most often are God, the peasant, and woman” – just the subjects to drive Gorky crazy.  “About literature he speaks seldom and grudgingly, as if literature were something alien to him” (35).  Still:

One evening, at dusk, squinting, his eyebrows twitching, he read us a version of the scene in “Father Sergius” where the woman goes to seduce the hermit.  He read it clear through, raised his head, closed his eyes, and said with great clarity:

“The old man really could write!”

He said it with amazing simplicity – his delight at the beauty of what he’d written was so sincere – that I will always remember the thrill I felt then, a joy I could find no words for, and one that cost me an enormous effort to control.  (64)

“Lev Tolstoy” is immensely humanizing, remembering that humans are strange beasts.  The subject of “Anton Chekhov,” by contrast, is a saint, a member of a higher species.  In his presence, people’s falseness, posturing, and vulgarity drop away.

He had fine eyes.  When he smiled they became warm and caressing, like a woman’s.  And his laughter, almost soundless, was somehow particularly fine.  Laughing, he was enjoying the laughter, rejoicing.  I don’t know anyone else who could laugh so – if one could put it that way – “spiritually.”  (103)

When Tolstoy praises Chekhov’s story “The Darling” – “with real emotion. There were tears in his eyes” – Chekhov responds with:

For a long time he said nothing.  Finally, with a sigh, he murmured in embarrassment:

“It’s got misprints in it…”  (105)

The portraits are also self-portraits, by contrast, Gorky’s differences from and exasperations with Tolstoy, Andreyev, and Blok revealing his own character.  But he was mostly interested in other people more than himself.  This was true in his own childhood memoir, and even more so here.

What an enjoyable book.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The grimful glee of Hardy's Later Lyrics

Late Lyrics and Earlier, with Many Other Verses (1922) by Thomas Hardy, his sixth book of lyric poems.  Hardy was something like eighty-two years old.  “Late lyrics” means written since his last book, Moments of Vision from 1917; “earlier” means written before that, mostly in the 1910s; “many other” seems logically redundant and means I know not what.

For context, 1922 is the year of The Waste-Land and Trilce and just a bit before Spring and All, Tulips and Chimneys, and The Duino Elegies.  Hardy has nothing to do with that stuff.  This book has two basic modes, one purely lyric, one narrative – maybe those are the “others.”  All Hardy poems, much like earlier Hardy poems.

The lyric mode is at this point as song-like as Hardy has ever been.  Many poems seem intended to lend themselves to music, perhaps existing hymns or folksongs.  Many are in some way about music, a theme that runs through the book:

from “The Curtains Now Are Drawn”

    I stand here in the rain,
    With its smite upon her stone,
    And the grasses that have grown
    Over women, children, men,
    And their texts that ‘Life is vain’;
    But I hear the notes as when
        Once she sang to me:
‘O the dream that thou art my Love, be it thine,
And the dream that I am thy Love, be it mine,
And death may come, but loving is divine.’

That is the second stanza; the woman is of course alive in the first.  Hardy poems are full of graves.  These have more singing and playing.  Benjamin Britten picked out “At the Railway Station, Upway” for his Winter Words song settings(1953), in which a boy fiddler at a train station plays a tune that causes a funny reaction in another man on the platform:

    The man in the handcuffs smiled;
The constable looked, and he smiled, too,
    As the fiddle began to twang;
And the man in handcuffs suddenly sang
                With grimful glee:
                ‘This life so free
                Is the thing for me!’
And the constable smiles and said no word
As if unconscious of what he heard;
And so they went on till the train came in
The convict, and boy with the violin.

Again, that is the second stanza.  The first is entirely about the boy.  The convict and constable are introduced as we see here, and a little story pops out, the music mixing with the narrative.

“Grimful glee” is a good description of a number of Hardy stories, including many in this book, narrative poems with plots that could easily have found their way into a theoretical Hardy novel, if he had not given up prose fiction twenty-five years earlier.  “The Chapel-Organist,” for example, in which a sexually promiscuous woman finally offends the church elders to the point that she won’t be allowed to play the organ anymore; she poisons herself and dies at the climax of her final performance.  Ludicrous but Hardy has a way of making the ludicrous tragic.

Another hilarious one, where I almost wish there were a novel, is “A Woman’s Fancy.”  A woman visiting a spa town is mistaken for the runaway wife of a man who just died.  They think she has returned out of guilt.  Because no one will believe her denials, and everyone talks to her about nothing but how pitiful her husband was, she falls in love with him – the dead man – and begins visiting his grave with “a bereaved wife’s sorrow.”  At the end of the poem, she is buried with him – “’Call me by his name on the stone!’”

The last poem in the book, “Surview,” has the poet hearing his own voice in a fire.  The fire chides him for betraying his ideals, and then dies:

    And the sticks burnt low, and the fire went out,
        And my voice ceased talking to me.

Those are the last lines of the book.  I suppose every book had to be thought of as the last one, the dying of the fire.  Hardy would publish one more book of poems and have another ready when he died.

Friday, March 17, 2017

So outlandish is the look of our poems - H. Leivick thinks of the Yiddish poets

H. Leivick is the Russian among the American Yiddish poets.  The Russian Symbolist; Dostoevsky.  The Dostoevsky comparison comes from his biography.  A dirt poor Ukrainian Jew with a painful but serious yeshiva education, he became a socialist radical enough that he was exiled to Siberia – for life! – at the age of eighteen.  He escaped, eventually, crossing, Siberia, Russia, Europe and the Atlantic to his new life in New York City as a wallpaper hanger and Yiddish poet.

Maybe it is too easy to make a poem on that subject interesting.

from “On the Roads of Siberia” (1919)

On the roads of Siberia
Someone may still uncover a button, a lace
Of my torn shoe,
A leather belt, a shard of a clay mug,
A page of a holy book.

His remnants are on the other side of the world.  His parents are buried “In a small town in a Russian field.”  “What am I doing here, in New York’s Hester Park?” (from “The Sturdy in Me”).  Another poem answers that question:

from “Here Lives the Jewish People” (1923)

I walk for hours in the streets of the Jewish East Side
And imagine in the fiery whiteness before my eyes
Fantastic gates, soaring columns,
Rising from all the dilapidated stands
Upward, to the far and empty New York sky.
Gates – on all their cornices
Glowing, sparkling signs, inscribed:
Here lives the Jewish people.

A glimpse of Leivick’s mystical side, a visionary side.  Years ago I read two of Leivick’s plays, The Golem (1922), a philosophical portrait of the legendary monster, and Shop (1926), a piece of well-detailed union propaganda, both with strong Modernist elements – the political play climaxes in modern dance! – but otherwise not seeming like they were by the same author.  The poems reconcile the differences, or show how many different Leivicks there are.

from “Yiddish Poets” (1930s?)

When I think of us – Yiddish poets,
A sorrow grabs me – sharp, acute;
I want to scream to myself, to pray –
And just then the words grow mute.
 So outlandish is the look of our poems –
Like stalks the locusts have possessed;
One comfort: get disgusted with yourself,
Slink on God’s earth, an alien guest!

The American Yiddish Poetry anthology has facing-page Yiddish, in Hebrew characters, so mostly useless to me, but here I can look at the original lines and laugh at the metaphor.  Here is another good one from the poem:

Sometimes, like frazzled cats, dragging
Their kittens around, distraught,
We drag our poems between our teeth
By the neck through the streets of New York.

The alphabet, the poems, are literally “outlandish” in America.  Leivick never shakes the sense that he is a refugee.  The first poem in his first book is “Somewhere Far Away,” where “a prisoner” searches for the road to “the forbidden land.”  The last poem in this anthology ends with an attempt at closure, a long piece of Yiddish Whitman called “To America” (1955), in which he again mourns “the evil lot / [that] has scattered all Yiddish poets over New-Siberias,” but now accepts his Americanness, and sees himself on America.  “You too, America, walked close with [Abraham and David], / You too, have absorbed in your heart God’s commandment and blessing.”

If I were to write a poem titled “Yiddish Translators” it would be effusively thankful but would also include a polite, urgent request for a Collected Poems of H. Leivick and a number of other American Yiddish poets.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Words take on sadder and purer tones - Jacob Glatstein and Moishe-Leib Halpern, American poets

I needed to refresh myself in the other great line of Modernist American poets, the ones who did not write in English.  So I poked around in Benjamin and Barbara Harshav’s American Yiddish Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology (1986), which has substantial selections from Jacob Glatstein, Moishe-Leib Halpern, H. Leivick, and four other interesting but lesser poets.  I was really just looking for Leivick, but the book was too interesting.  The poets – the ones I named – all published their first books circa 1920; they’re all immigrants (from Poland, Galicia, and Russia, respectively); they’re all New Yorkers; they’re all secularists but deeply Jewish, working millennia of traditions, stories, and Hebrew literature into their poems.

Glatstein was the language Modernist, writing poems like “If Joyce Had Written in Yiddish,” not included here because it is all multi-language puns, and hardly translatable.

from “We the Wordproletariat” (1937)

The sky, the blue hazard, went out.
You still sit and seek the shadows of a word
And scrape the mold off meanings.
Words take on sadder and purer tones.

The cursed night has got into your bones.

Soon this would become all too true, and events in Europe worsened Glatstein moved to a more directly expressive language suitable for mourning, anger, and despair:

from “Without Jews” (1946)

Without Jews there will be no Jewish God.
If we go away from the world,
The light will go out in your poor tent…
The last Jewish hour flickers.
Jewish God, soon you are no more.

I would love to read more of this later poem – only Part I is in this anthology:

from “Dostoevksy” (1953)

Dostoevsky put God
on his table
Like a bottle of vodka
And guzzled.
He retched and vomited,
Sobered up
And was drawn again to God
As to the bottle.

Moishe-Leib Halpern had more of a journalistic spirit.  His poems are full of characters, slang, politics, and New York.  Energy.

from “My Restlessness Is of a Wolf” (1919)

My restlessness is of a wolf, and of a bear my rest,
Riot shouts in me, and boredom listens.
I am not what I want, I am not what I think,
I am the magician and I’m the magic-trick.

The poem just continues as a list, with no resolution.  Any finish, any settled point, would go against his restlessness.

Halpern’s posthumous poems, published in 1934, include a number of poems – rants – addressed to his son.  They are a perfect form for him – conversational, emotional, digressive.

from “My Only Son”

I tell him: Son,
Nowadays even a prince
Has to learn how to do something.
And you – touch wood – you’re already a year-and-a-half
And what will become of you?

The world-weary baby, asked to say the Kaddish for his dead father, says “To hel vit it – dats right.”  In another poem, Halpern worries his son will not have a choice of profession:

from “This I Said to My Only Son at Play – and to Nobody Else”

But it’s not to send you a crate of chocolate
That they register your birthday with precision!
Somewhere a tailorboy – one of the Thirty-Six Just, like you –
Already bends over your soldier’s tunic –
And may his hump accuse him for singing at his work!
Anyway, they are already melting lead for rifles…

Maybe I’ll save H. Leivick for tomorrow.

About a third of Moishe-Leib Halpern’s first book has been translated as In New York: A Selection (1982), which is why I did not think I would revisit him here, but he is so much fun in the later poems.  Halpern is also one of the dual subjects of Ruth Wisse’s Little Love in Big Manhattan (1988), a real plunge into the world of these poets, and a great book.  There are a couple of collections of Glatstein in translation, too.  Maybe I will come across one someday.  In the presence of their poems, these seem to be vital American poets, worthy of far more attention than they get, but the Yiddish, their dying language, has kept them in another, minor, category.  They could use new collections.  I doubt they’ll get them.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Carles Riba, Catalan poet, in perhaps pointless translation - other images of such unthought-of meaning

Now, a good try.  A moderately useful book, the Poems of Carles Riba, with poems from 1919 through 1952 translated by J. L. Gili, a longtime champion, translator and publisher of Catalan literature.  Thirty short poems, with Catalan and English, so barely a book, really.

My rummage through poetry circa 1920 has pointed me towards some poets like Riba who first published at the time (1919) but whose more important works came later, perhaps much later.  For Riba, that might mean Les elegies de Bierville (1942), poems written during Riba’s exile in southern France after the Civil War.  The first French translation was just published in January, which also caught my attention – who is this?  Perhaps I will learn French and read that translation, because the English only includes four poems from that book:

from Elegy III

I do not remember it [a park] as I saw it, but as it was imagined,
    a change enriched and made pure by the joy of the sea,
the last cluster in the nocturnal course.  But more
    innocently still other images and of such
unthought-of meaning have been changed, and are cherished
    in the ardour of the two youthful lovers
who in the heart of the immense smoky city admitted us
    into their paradise of light, voluptuousness and adventure.

It helps to know that the poem is written in exile, that I can plausibly place its “inert memories” in the poet’s youth in Barcelona, and the poems all have a detectable Mediterranean flavor – well, lots of sea references – but otherwise the English often slumps into abstract goo.  “Last cluster of the nocturnal course,” huh?  (“l’últim flotó maragdí del rumb nocturn”).

Riba was a formalist.  All of the poems in the book are in classic – or Classical – forms.  Lots of sonnets.  Even tankas.  My understanding is that a good part of Riba’s achievement was exactly his use of these forms in Catalan, a rejuvenation and modernizing of the poetic language.  That is tough – perhaps pointless – to move into another language.  Perhaps the value of reading Riba in English is knowing that he exists.

Some images or ideas survive regardless.  These are the last six lines of a sonnet about a fish:

from Fish in the Fish-bowl

From much further than a memory
the light comes to you; you are
dark underneath the still glory

in which you dwell, your eyes quiet,
as one who, perplexed, contemplates himself
in a mirror that is for ever turning.

De més lluny que d’una memòria,
la llum et visita; tu ets
obscur sota la immòbil glòria

que travesses, amb ulls quiets,
com qui, sense comprendre, es mira
a una mirall que eternament gira.

If I pretend that this is Spanish, it is clear enough what I lose – rhyme, rhythm, all of the internal resonance (quiets / qui, mira / mirall), but I suppose the sense is fine.  What is it like to be a fish?

Carles Riba was also a translator.  His list of translated works is astounding, including The Odyssey in verse – two versions, one early in his life, one late – Hölderlin, Gottfried Keller, Greek tragedies, Poe, Scott.  I will bet that not one reader of Riba’s Sophocles or The Bride of Lammermoor could not have read the plays in some other language.  So the deep commitment was to the experience of the play in Catalan, to whatever beauties and meaning might be available in Catalan and not elsewhere.  Translators into small languages are culture heroes.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Spending the weekend reading (a museum) - under the charm of the Art Institute of Chicago

He might have been a student under the charm of a museum – which was exactly what, in a foreign town, in the afternoon of life, he would have liked to be free to be.  (Henry James, The Ambassadors, Ch. 7)

Chicago was not exactly foreign, given how long I lived there, although it is becoming increasingly so, given how long I have been away.  That’s why I spent as much of the weekend as I could stand – museums are exhausting – in the Art Institute of Chicago, reminding myself of what was in it, learning what was new, and more than anything re-reading the story – stories – the museum was telling.  I treated myself to several hours of intense reading, where the words were art objects and the pages were galleries. Let’s say.  To keep the metaphor going.  That's a 1925 print by Picasso, "Reading," not on display.

The primary story is the Chicago version of the conventional story of Western art history, beginning in Italy and northern Europe as the High Middle Ages turn into the Renaissance and painting becomes the prestige form and a series of rapid innovations in materials (e.g., oil paints), technique (e.g., sweet perspective), and subject (e.g., landscape) are launched.  Each successive gallery is a new adventure.  A secondary form, sculpture, is apparently used to provide obstacles that keep museum-goers alert – careful backing up when looking at a painting – might be a sculpture behind you.

The Chicago collection of early modern art is relatively minor, and getting more so.  How sad to see my favorite Rembrandt of theirs be demoted to “Workshop of.”  Well, the man ran a good workshop.  But the modern collection – the modern French collection – is so good that it shapes the entire story, which becomes not the Whig version of history but the Impressionist version of art history.  Everything before is a step toward Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street, Rainy Day and Gallery 201, which is presented by the march of art and the design of the building as an apotheosis.

I have to literally change directions to see what happens next, or I am back in the Middle Ages.  Take the correct exit, and I get late Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, the invention of abstract painting in a perfect sequence of Kandinsky paintings, Surrealism and its fragments (sculpture finally becomes a major form), much of this on the magnificent third floor of the new – to me! – Modern wing, full of old favorites surrounded by new company.  Abandon hope and descend a floor to see the end of civilization – certainly the end of beauty – in the nightmarish Contemporary galleries.  Enormously instructive.  And the story – how did we get here­ – makes sense.

Long ago I was able to visit the Art Institute frequently, and for brief periods.  Fifteen minutes.  I would look at a single gallery, or a single painting.  I visited the exquisite Japanese print gallery every month.  I loved the many ways curators pushed against the overreaching story told by the great French collection (e.g., the 18th century weirdness gallery; the 19th century bad taste gallery).  I learned to read lots of different stories.

The first texts I read this time, actually, were on the museum door – “A Best Museum in the World,” per TripAdvisor – “The Best Museum in the World” in 2014!  Deluded!  Ignorant!  Hilarious!  But moving from the Claude Monet gallery through the Vincent van Gogh gallery to the Paul Cézanne gallery, or standing before the giant wall of Joseph Cornells, a cabinet full of smaller cabinets – yes, “A Best.”  I didn’t see anyone struck down by Stendhal’s Syndrome, but the guards are likely on high alert for the symptoms of beauty poisoning.

I propose that once a year – perhaps on income tax day – the curators add to the description of each artwork its estimated value.  That’s another story about art.  How much is that Monet gallery worth?  $500 million?  A billion?  Last year a grainstack painting sold for over $80 million, and that room has four of those, plus three prime water lilies and so on.  And they let me – anyone – come in to stick my nose close and examine the brushwork.  Crazy.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution - looted wine and revolutionary ostriches

In the versions of Alexander Blok’s “The Twelve” that are not rock operas, the marauding Reds do some looting:

Open up the cellars –
treat the thirsty fellas!

Those lines, from the Dralyuk and Chandler translation found in 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, 2016), have a little jolt now because of the highly instructive way this anthology is organized.

The book is a collection of poems, fiction, and whatnots addressing the 1917 revolution.  The pieces are organized thematically – and what themes!  The first section titled “Stolen Wine,” is about the looting and destruction, by smashing or glugging, of wine cellars, some of them massively valuable.  A narrow concern, I first thought, but it was a live political issue, an action filled with symbolic meaning – what is the Revolution doing; what is it for?

And it produced poems, like this terrific fantasy of wine-flooded streets by Marina Tsvetaeva:

The moon in a cloud of wine. – Who’s that? Stop!
Be my comrade, sweetheart: drink up!
Merry stories go round:
Deep in wine – a couple has drowned.  (tr. Dralyuk)

In a Tsvetaeva or Mandelstam collection, I doubt the wine would stand out, but six poems in a row make the point.  And then the image, the issue, recurs throughout the book, as in the Blok poem.  Clever; useful.

These interconnections run through the anthology.  The banner that opens “The Twelve” reappears in Mikhail Prishvin’s “The Blue Banner” – they were published on the same day! – as does the looting theme.  A merchant buys a crate of tea at a bad time to be carrying goods around Petersburg.  The wine cellar theme appears, too, as the merchant dreams himself towards death, marching first “to the wine cellars where the Red Guards are shooting off the drunkards for the third day straight” (194).

The loose, almost conversational Prishvin story is translated by Lisa Hayden, better known here as Lizok.  I know nothing more about Prishvin than is contained in the introductory material.  One of the many benefits of a good anthology – new writers.  Only one piece seemed of purely historical interest, the six pages of apocalyptic religious ranting by Vasily Rozanov.  Good to know such things existed, but six pages was plenty.

Everyone has been reading Teffi lately.  Her pieces are highlights.  “Every bit of him is tightly stuffed, like a leather football, squealing and cracking at the seams, but unable to fly into the air unless it is kicked” (126) – that’s Lenin.

Newspaper boys were nipping about among the queues, together with vendors of sbiten and fried pies.  Michel wanted to try one, but I talked him out of it – such filthy things, smelling of tallow candles.  (134)

The characters are in line, waiting to be guillotined.  Satire so brutal no one wanted to publish it.  But given the circumstances, I am amazed anyone was publishing anything.

Vladimir Mayakovsky, from “To Russia”:

Here I come,
an ostrich from a distant land,
wearing these feathers: stanzas, metres, rhymes.
I foolishly try to bury my head,
dig it into my clinking plumes…
Exotic, outlandish,
I might as well vanish
under the fury of all Decembers.  (tr. James Womack)

I guess I will take the next couple of days off.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Blok = blues-rock - Anselm Hollo's "The Twelve" - what the hell come on baby

In January 1918, Alexander Blok banged out “The Twelve,” a twelve-canto idiosyncratic response to the revolution.  I have read four versions recently: from the 1970 Stallworthy and France collection, from the new 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, translated by Boris Dralyuk and Robert Chandler, a stiff, formal version by George Reavey found in Willis Barnstone’s Modern European Poetry anthology (1966), and a wild blues-rock version by Finnish-American beat poet Anselm Hollo (The Twelve & Other Poems, 1971).

A Revolution has hit.  In the first canto, a woman sees a banner with a political slogan and regrets the waste of good cloth.  Meanwhile, twelve revolutionaries wreak havoc.  One of them has a girlfriend who is a prostitute, probably.  He murders her for, you know, fraternization.  He feels bad, but there is revolutionary work to do.  The twelve soldiers are joined by a dog and are led by – this is the famous, mystifying, last line – Jesus Christ.

The most accurate version is – how would I possibly know?  They are all entirely different in places, but the great difference can be seen at the end of Canto XI:

Forward, advance,
    The Working People!  (Reavey)

Forward, and forward again
the working men!  (Stallworthy and France)

I’ll expand the next one:

Their measured tread
rings in your ears.

Soon –
their mortal foe will wake.

And the blizzard dusts their eyes,
day and night,
without halt…

Onward, onward,
working folk!  (Dralyuk and Chandler)

got to keep movin got to keep movin
blues fallin down like hail
& the days & the nights
keep on worrying me

for a hellhound on my trail yes
hellhound
on my trail  (Hollo)

So for some stab at literalness, I guess one of the first three, but for awesomeness, obviously the Hollo.  He has to rearrange the action in the cantos a bit, but the Robert Johnson lyrics – that is all “Hellhound on My Trail” (1937) with two words from Blok (“& nights”) added – are a good fit.

Hollo’s number one trick – not his only trick – is to turn the cantos into songs, to convert Blok into the blues rock of his, Hollo’s, time, ready for Mick Jagger, or in this case Mose Allison:

I am Vanya I’m the man
I’m the man I’m the seventh son

I can talk ‘n I can sing
I sure know how to do that thing

Katya Katya Katyenka  (Canto IV)

In the Canto V, the point of view switches to the jealous, crazed, revolutionary Petya – there’s the disciple’s name:

what the hell come on baby
shake out of that groove
you been playing around baby
you been playing around a lot
been playing around with them lootenants baby

but you never been playing with a plain joe like me  (Canto V)

And in the next Canto, poor Katya is dead.  The lieutenant gets away, I guess.  I have no doubt that part of the inspiration for this version was Hollo’s realization that “The Twelve” is a kind of murder ballad, an all too common classic American form.

I suppose someone unfamiliar with the idiom would find Hollo’s translation pointless, but I found it loud, crackly, and energetic.  Thrilling, but I’m glad it’s not the only one I read.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Damn books, be silent - some Alexander Blok

A year ago I read a cluster of books by the extraordinary generation of Russian Silver Age poets.  I skipped the slightly older Alexander Blok for logistical reasons, now addressed.  I read the other poets write about Blok: “But the talk is what I remember,” writes Anna Akhmatova.

The Twelve and Other Poems, translated by Jon Stallworthy and Peter France (1970), is a workhorse overview.  Fifty poems, covering 1900 to 1918.  Blok’s personality is evident, and some of his subjects: his mysticism, St. Petersburg, a succession of semi-imaginary semi-muses (the Beautiful Lady, the Snow Maiden), bouts of drunken Bohemianism in the company of other great poets, and finally his idiosyncratic embrace of the 1917 Revolution.

I get lost when the poems become too mystical, unless this counts as mysticism:

I am nailed to a bar with liquor.
Been drunk all day.  So what!  I’ve lost
my happiness – gone in a troika
careering into silver mist.

It is easier for me to understand Blok as a Bohemian, a poète maudit, which is not the whole story, but is at least one of his modes:

I want to live, live to distraction:
to make the present live for ever,
make the impersonal human, cover
with flesh whatever now has none!

That’s the positive expression of the mode.  The negative is perhaps:

           I long to see written
in men’s eyes and in women’s eyes
marks of damnation and election.  (from “Earth’s Heart Is Growing Cold Again”)

If Blok sounds miserable, well, I can’t speak for more than what is in this book, but yes:

Oh, for that grave in the nettles
in which to sleep and forever
forget oneself!  Damn books, be silent;
I never wrote you, never!

That is from “To My Friends,” which is funny.

The results of Blok’s 1909 visit to Italy are amusing given all the pro-Italy propaganda I read recently.  The same sense of beauty and civilization that entranced Goethe and Forster repelled Blok.  He was suspicious of Ravenna (“Sepulchral wastes where the grapes fatten,” from “Ravenna”) and loathed Florence.

Die, Florence, Judas, disappear
in the twilight of long ago!
In the hour of love and in the hour
of death I’ll not remember you.
***
The motorcars snort in your lanes,
your houses fill me with disgust;
you have given yourself to the stains
of Europe’s bilious yellow dust.  (from “Florence,” ll. 1-4)

The next poem in the collection begins “Russia and I, must we suffer one destiny?”  Whatever Blok meant by Russia, he meant it.

You may have noticed some rhymes up above.  I don’t know.  These translations give me a strong sense that Blok was a fascinating person and a weak sense that he was a great poet.  Maybe there are better options now.  Please recommend.

Aside from this book, I scrounged up three more translations of Blok’s great, late poem “The Twelve.”  I’ll look at those tomorrow.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

when the world is mudluscious - looking at early E. E. Cummings

My prejudice was that E. E. Cummings was the author of Modernist Poetry for Dummies, assuming that “dummies” in that series is affectionately self-deprecating.  A lot of typographical fooling around for its own sake.  A voice but not a worldview.  Poems that are often adorable, a word not so often applied to Wallace Stevens.

here is little Effie’s head
whose brains are made of gingerbread
when the judgment day comes
God will find six crumbs (from &, Portraits, III)

But I had only read anthology pieces.  Now I have read Tulips & Chimneys (1923) and & (1925), the first book of real Cummings poem and a subsequent chapbook, and I discover that I was not that wrong.  Moderately wrong.

Tulips & Chimneys begins with what I take as a head-fake, twenty-one regular, rhyming stanzas on the marriage of Earth and Spring, I guess, packed with classical references – “Chryselephantine Zeus Olympian / sceptered colossus of the Pheidian soul” and so on – that is only a bit odd in that there are no spaces after internal punctuation.  “O still miraculous May!O shining girl,” like that.  The second poem is a pre-Raphaelite knockoff with, a little more, and thus more noticeable, punctuation.  Then something that sounds like 1890s Decadence.

It is as if Cummings is quickly moving me through his own development as a poet, the steps that brought him to this:

in Just-
spring          when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles          far          and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s spring  (from “Chansons Innocentes” I)

And from this point anything can happen.  My attention was usually caught more by poems like "in Just-", with people in them, than descriptions of mood, but perhaps the latter poems just demanded more intense reading:

i was considering how
within night’s loose
sack a star’s
nibbling in-

fin
-i-
tes-
i
-mal-
ly devours

darkness [skip some stuff]
          when over my head a
shooting
star
Bur          s

                  (t
                     into a stale shriek
like an alarm-clock)

I guess this is not so hard in substance but it requires some serious riddle-solving attention just to read the thing.  This time there are calligram-like clues, like “burst” bursting on the page.  Occasionally something took a long  time:

is,fond of tummy plums of tangerines and apples it will,Gorge indistinct
palishflesh of laZilytas tingg OO seberries,it,loves these better than,  (from &, A, VII)

It took me a long time to see “lazily tasting gooseberries.”  I had to work backwards.  I would not say that I read these poems all that well, but I sure looked at them.

The above is one of the many surprisingly explicit sex poems in early Cummings, especially in the little & book.  Anatomical explicitness, obscene words – did the censors not care what poets did? – and a great deal of lustful worship of the female body.

      I bite on the eyes’ brittle crust
(only feeling the belly’s merry thrust
Boost my huge passion like a business

and the Y her legs panting as they press

proffers its omelet of fluffy lust)  (from &, D, III)

Throughout the poem, the metaphorical language is somehow more explicit than if it were clinical.  He overdoes his romanticization of prostitutes, but otherwise brings a new freedom to American poetry.  “I like my body when it is with your / body” (&, D, VII).

I had no idea – making a note to myself – that Cummings wrote so many sonnets.  They often sound like they are from the 17th century, like Cummings is updating Robert Herrick.

it may not always be so;and i say
that if your lips,which i have loved,should touch
another’s,and your dear strong fingers clutch
his heart,as mine in time not far away;  (from “Sonnets – Actualities,” XI)

Revisit these.  Heck, read it all again.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

an abrupt vision of chaos - more strange things I found in The Octopus

The strangeness of The Octopus is what makes it a great book, however great that might be.  Any hack can write a novel defending noble farmers against the greedy railroad.  But Norris, more than a bit of a hack himself, was artist enough to write a Frank Norris novel.

Here are more of the strange things he put in it:

1.  The jackrabbit massacre.  Everyone forms a long line in the field after the wheat harvest, compressing until the jackrabbits are corralled.  Don’t Google this unless you want to see the results:

Inside it was a living, moving, leaping, breathing, twisting mass.  The rabbits were packed two, three, and four feet deep.  They were in constant movement; those beneath struggling to the top, those on top sinking and disappearing below their fellows.  (II.6)

Norris squeezes plenty of irony out of this long, brutal scene.  As with McTeague, I recommend The Octopus to Cormac McCarthy fans.  No, actually, why haven’t McCarthy fans been recommending The Octopus to everyone else?  The scene is more like the slaughter of the passenger pigeons in Cooper’s The Pioneers (1823) than the industrial butchery of the whales in Moby-Dick (1851), but those two examples are sufficient to place Norris in a long, ongoing American fictional tradition.

2.  “Jack-rabbits were a pest that year” – so begins the previous chapter, which is mostly full of the long, complex pursuit of a fugitive train robber, driven to his crimes by the perfidy of the railroad, sure, but gone too far.  The train robbery scene is good, too, but the chase – at one point, there is a bit where two train engines are passing each other on parallel tracks, one going backwards, and there is a shootout between the engines as they pass each other.  Awesome.

…  confusion whirling in the scene like the whirl of a witch’s dance, the white clouds of steam, the black eddies from the smokestack, the blue wreaths from the hot mouths of the revolvers, swirling together in a blinding maze of vapor, spinning around them, dazing them, dizzying them, while the head rang with hideous clamor and the body twitched and trembled with the leap and jar of the tumult of machinery.

Roaring, clamoring, reeking with the smell of powder and hot oil, spitting death, resistless, huge, furious, an abrupt vision of chaos, faces, rage-distorted, peering through smoke, hands gripping outward from sudden darkness, prehensile, malevolent; terrible as thunder, swift as lightning, the two engines met and passed.

That passage is perfect, eminently Norris – his lists, his repetitions, his movement, his clichés.  “An abrupt vision of chaos” – yes, that’s The Octopus at its best.

3.  There is a character who has telepathy.  He can summon people to him – and the people he summons believe he has done it.  He wonders if he can summon his girlfriend from sixteen years ago, who was assaulted, and died.  She is associated with flowers:

Her hands disengaged the odor of the heliotropes.  The folds of her dress gave off the enervating scent of poppies.  Her feet were redolent of hyacinths.  (I.4)

Weird!  And it turns out he can summon her from the dead!  “Realism,” people call this.

Whole subplot should have been cut, honestly.

4.  The wheat farmers fight the railroad; the railroad wins; but the Wheat gets its murderous revenge.  It must be seen to be disbelieved – “… no sound but the rushing of the Wheat that continued to plunge incessantly from the iron chute in a prolonged roar, persistent, steady, inevitable” (II.9).

Friday, March 3, 2017

But that is not literature - No, thank God, it is not - the literature and art theme in The Octopus

The Octopus begins with a poet on a bicycle, but it is mostly about wheat framers fighting the railroad, fighting over freight rates and property.  Weapons include bribery and firearms.  The railroad through the Central Valley makes it profitable to plow up the ranchland for wheat – but profitable for whom?

The poet hopes to write an epic “Song of the West” in “hexameters,” Lord help us.  The other character here is a farmer’s wife who loves Pater and Ruskin and Italy:

His “Song of the West,” which only once, incoherent and fierce, he had tried to explain to her, its swift, tumultuous life, its truth, its nobility and savagery, its heroism and obscenity, had revolted her.

“But, Presley,” she had murmured, “that is not literature.”

“No,” he had cried between his teeth, “no, thank God, it is not.”  (I.2.)

At this point I feared Norris was describing his own novel, but Presley eventually has an epiphany leading him to drop his cornball Nietzsche act.  He “flung aside his books of poems” for “Mill, Malthus, Young, Pushkin, Henry George, Schopenhauer,” finding “not one sane suggestion as to remedy or redress.”  He becomes a proletarian poet, scoring big with something, not in hexameters, called “The Toilers.”

Norris at times regards his poet not as a stand-in but as a warning, something close to a con man.  The visual arts are treated more brutally, though, with artists treated as courtiers, servants to railroad money.  A railroad executive’s San Francisco mansion feature stained glass windows with Wagnerian themes and a series of painted panels representing “the personages in the Romaunt de la Rose, and was conceived in an atmosphere of the most delicate, most ephemeral allegory.  The poet dines at this house near the end of the novel, in the extraordinary II.8., with the courses of the dinner alternating with scenes of another character, a widow of the fight with the railroad, literally starving to death on the San Francisco streets:

A grateful numbness had begun to creep over her, a pleasing semi-insensibility.  She no longer felt the pain and cramps of her stomach, even the hunger was ceasing to bite.
                                                                 ------------
“These stuffed artichokes are delicious, Mrs. Gerard,” murmured young Lambert, wiping his lips with a corner of his napkin”…  [discussion of the “special train” that brings the fresh asparagus]

“Fancy eating ordinary market asparagus,” said Mrs. Gerard, “that has been fingered by Heaven knows how many hands.”

Then back to the dying woman.  This is blunt, but as gripping as earlier scenes with gunplay.  That Julian Lambert fellow, who appears only in this scene, is openly mocked by the narrator – he “posed as an epicure” – and I wonder if he is meant to parody someone.  But otherwise, I wonder if Norris’s use of this incongruous poet character is meant to show a movement towards an authentic art, away from Romanticism and idea-driven works towards journalistic, Zolaesque fiction like The Octopus.  Like the novel contains its own apology, for some reason.

There is another character, one of the farmers, an odd bird, who spends his leisure time reading David Copperfield and eating prunes, “methodically swallowing one prune every time he reached the bottom of the page” (I.5).  That sounds almost allegorical, too.  Literature as health food.  This character begins as a fool and greatly improves, for all the good it does him.  I don’t know.  I’m just trying to puzzle out why this poet is even in this wheat and railroad novel.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

But the WHEAT remained - Frank Norris's wheat epic, The Octopus

There it was, the Wheat, the Wheat!  (Book II, Ch. 2)

The Octopus (1901) is a novel based on a questionable idea.  It is the first volume in the “Trilogy of the Epic of the Wheat,” three novels that while “forming a series, will be in no way connected with each other save only in their relation to (1) the production, (2) the distribution, (3) the consumption of American wheat.”  That is from Frank Norris’s note that heads the novel, itself another questionable idea, numbered lists about theoretical novels.  Unless that is what the novel is about.  But this novel is about wheat.

But the WHEAT remained.  Untouched, unassailable, undefiled, that mighty world-force, that nourisher of nations, wrapped in Nirvanic calm, indifferent to the human swarm, gigantic, resistless, moved onward in its appointed grooves.  (last page)

Imagine a novel mostly written like that!  It’s not this book, which is a mix of functional best-seller writing of the kind I associate with much later writers of big epics (James Michener, say) punctuated by passages of California lyricism that are inspired by Zola but at this point do not really sound like him, with a number of chapters, long scenes – a big barn-warming party, the pursuit of a dangerous fugitive, a jackrabbit hunt – that are terrific, fast-moving, meaningful, exciting, etc., etc.

Unfortunately, I have not read the two most relevant Zola novels, La Terre (1887), about farming, and La Bête humaine (1890), about railroads – the “octopus” of the title is the railroad – so I do not know to what extent Norris has pilfered them for metaphorical material.  His plot seems unrelated.

This sounds kinda like Zola:

One could not take a dozen steps upon the ranches without the brusque sensation that underfoot the land was alive; roused at last from its sleep, palpitating with the desire for reproduction.  Deep down there in the recesses of the soil, the great heart throbbed once more, thrilling with passion, vibrating with desire, offering itself to the caress of the plow, insistent, eager, imperious.  (I.4.)

Plenty more like that.

The Octopus is one of many novels about the Mussel Slough Tragedy, a property dispute between pioneer wheat farmers in the San Joaquin Valley and railroad representatives that turned violent.  The novel is resolutely on the side of the farmers, who are themselves quite wealthy.  The conflict is mostly between the rich and the super-rich, which dampened the stakes, although there are some side plots that allow a little more ordinary sympathy.

Norris is well aware of the issue.  The railroad is the more or less distant villain, but the novel spends time critiquing the farmers.  This is their leader, “Governor” Magnus:

It was the new era.  He had live to see the death of the old and the birth of the new; first the mine, now the ranch; first gold, now wheat.  Once again he became the pioneer, hardy, brilliant, taking colossal chances, blazing the way, grasping a fortune – a million in a single day.  All the bigness of his nature leaped up again within him.

He is less a farmer than a hands-on commodity speculator, a gambler.

Lots of other things in this novel.  A day or two more.