Monday, November 18, 2019

A survey of literary gangsters of the 1920s - “We got to keep amused, haven’t we?”

I’ve been reading heavily, over the last year or two, in the literature of the 1920s, and that means one thing: gangsters.  Criminals who organize their crimes.

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) and The Threepenny Opera (1928) are German variations on the theme.  The Odessa Stories (1923-4), Isaac Babel’s other masterpiece, cover a Russian version.

Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza (1989) takes care of Japan.  This one is non-fiction – I believe it is thought to be accurate, but with this subject, who knows.  Junichi describes his life from roughly the 1910s through the 1940s, but the 1920s get disproportionate attention, when he was setting himself up as a Yakuza, primarily, says he, in the gambling racket.  The section about the 1923 Tokyo earthquake alone is worth reading, if you do not mind that it is a horrible nightmare.  Recommended to anyone interested in Japanese culture – this is not a story I had seen anywhere else.

The United States is at this point going through the episode of mass delusion known as Prohibition, giving gangster plenty to do.  They enter literature slowly.  The earliest I encountered are in The Great Gatsby (1925), where they are either a minor or major part of the story depending on how receptive you are to  - now here I am going to refer to an idea that is not exactly a spoiler of the plot, but is perhaps something worse – to the idea of Gatsby as murder mystery.  Meaning, does our narrator Nick get Gatsby’s murder right, and if he gets it wrong is he ignorant or obfuscating, and if the latter is it unconscious (hiding something from himself) or purposeful (hiding something from me).  Regardless, any complete interpretation of the novel had better figure out what to do with the gangsters and Gatsby’s con-artist bond scheme.

Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers” is the next place I get a good dose of gangsterism.  The twelve-page story spends eight pages just watching a couple of hired killers perform, like an early version of Pulp Fiction.  “In their tight overcoats and derby hats they looked like a vaudeville team.”  They act like a vaudeville team.

“I don’t like it,” said Al.  “It’s sloppy.  You talk too much.”

“Oh, what the hell,” said Max.  “We got to keep amused, haven’t we?”

A curious, possibly central, aspect of enjoying Hemingway’s writing as art is feeling where he slips into kitsch, but this entire story is about someone else’s kitsch, a representation of kitsch, which is perhaps why it is so good.

1929 saw two great monuments to the American gangster.  One is Dashiell Hammett’s violent, lunatic Red Harvest, in which a detective solves a town’s gangster problem by arranging the murder – occasionally personally murdering – every thug who lives there.  Around the three-quarter mark, I was thinking that I should have kept track of the murders, but then in Chapter 16 the detective tallies them up for me: “’That’s sixteen of them in less than a week, and more coming up,’” and the next chapter is actually titled “The Seventeenth Murder.”

The other book, not as good but possibly more important, is W. R. Burnett’s Little Caesar, a nominally realistic picture of Chicago’s small-time gangs, with Capone as the big figure in the background.  Burnett’s great problem, as he spent years on this book, was that he wanted it to be literature, to sound like Edith Wharton or something, but at some point he realized that he should use the simpler, almost stupid, language of the gangster’s themselves, or at least something that sounded like their language.

Rico [our little hero] smiled.  Then he took out his billfold and handed Seal Skin a ten.

“There’s a little cush for you.  You ain’t sore at me cause I socked you, are you?  I got red hot mad, that’s all.”

“You didn’t sock me hard,” said Seal Skin, “but it was ten dollars’ worth.”  (Ch. 6)

This kind of writing is pretty much screenplay-ready, so it is no surprise that the film that made Edward G. Robinson famous appeared in 1931.  More surprising is that it spurred a wave of gangster films, including Public Enemy and Scarface (which Burnett co-wrote); in other words, Burnett’s novel led to the creation of the genre of the gangster film.  Amazingly, Burnett pulled off the same trick a second time, writing the heist novel The Asphalt Jungle (1949), which is made in to a heist film that more or less creates or popularizes the genre of heist film.

This particular kind of high-speed entanglement of literature and film seems like something new.

As far as I can tell, nothing by W. R. Burnett is currently in print in the U.S.  We have so little sense of history.  Heaps of Burnett novels, Westerns, mysteries, everything, are in print in France, of course.

Monday, November 11, 2019

I counted American books in French bookstores - a study, with methodology and results and so on

Now, something about the French reading Americans, rather than me reading the French.

In July, I counted the titles by American fiction writers on the shelves at a French bookstore.  I even made a few notes, although most of what I include here is from memory.

The exercise was just to count the number of titles.  Prestige as measured by the proxy of shelf space.  Likely also sales, but who knows.  These are for-profit bookstores.  I doubt they have much on the shelf just for show.  They want to sell books.  They know their readers.

So, which American authors had the most titles on the shelves of a particular French bookstore in July?  There was a tie, two authors with 21 titles each.  You can guess while reviewing my methodology.

The bookstore I studied carefully was Librairie Passages, an exemplar of the mainstream bookstore.  I checked my results, pretty casually, at Le Bal des Ardents, Lyon’s most picturesque bookstore (see left), and the Decitre at the mall, which is the closest bookstore to the main public library.  The library is almost in the mall.  French life is well organized.

Le Bal des Ardents is weirder than Passages, with more tiny presses and oddities.  It is more highbrow, with, for example, the Complete Works of Antonin Artaud in 26 volumes on the shelf – who is buying this?  Decitre is populist – mall bookstore – but local, a branch of a century-old Lyon institution.

My American control is Prairie Lights in Iowa City, the best bookstore for hundreds of miles in any direction, which I visited in August.  It is not a typical bookstore, since Iowa City is the home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is a UNESCO City of Literature.  All of these bookstores are roughly the same size, I think.

The non-American winner – I was not even counting non-Americans, but he stood out – was Stefan Zweig, who had 50 books (not titles, too many books to check for duplicates) on the shelf at Passages.  50 books!  Stefan Zweig!  Prairie Lights had one book, maybe.

The American winners at Passages were Philip Roth and Jack London.   Roth I had guessed myself.  But London!  London has a much higher status in France than in the U.S. Prairie Lights had a dozen or more Roth titles out, but just two by London, among the “adult” books, I mean, The Call of the Wild and I don’t remember.  Maybe there were more downstairs with the kid’s books.

The runners-up, all in the 10-to-12 title range:  Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, Jim Harrison.  Living writers in the same range: Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison (alive then), Don DeLillo, Paul Auster.  I may have missed some of these.  I would have thought that Poe would be out of the running by this counting measure, but his works are rearranged into enough editions that he was close.

I did not jot down the numbers, but at Le Bal des Ardents, the winner (with fewer than 20 titles) was easily Faulkner, and second, including Russian works, was Vladimir Nabokov, who only had a few books at Passages.

Prairie Lights was generally similar.  Big differences, besides London: just three books by Joyce Carol Oates, and two or three by Kerouac.  I was surprised that it had as many Jim Harrison titles.  Maybe an artifact of the special qualities of that store.

Harrison mentions, several times, in the essays in A Really Big Lunch (2017), that his popularity at some point moved to France:

Luckily my books do very well in France…  The French saved my little family for which I’ll always be grateful.  I had many bestsellers over there but never in America.  (p. 265)

I remember Roth somewhere describing the same phenomenon (substituting Europe for France – German readers buy a lot of Roth).  It has struck me that French readers, or some of them, a lot of them, are interested in outsized American masculinity, thus the relatively high status of London, Hemingway, Kerouac, Harrison, and also noir detective novels and maybe even Oates.

Or maybe they like Harrison because of his many passages like this:

I have often thought that if I received an early warning that I would pass on sooner than later, I’d get myself to Lyon and eat for a solid month, after which they could tip me from a gurney into the blessed Rhône.  (164)

A kindred spirit.  Classic Lyon cuisine is not the healthiest food in France.

At the mall bookstore, the Americans with the most titles were, maybe – I did not keep exact track – Stephen King and George R. R. Martin and Mary Higgins Clark, like that.  Actually, it was probably a comic book writer, Geoff Johns or Stan Lee.  This was not true at Passages (I checked).  Donna Leon was up there, but nowhere near 21 books.

Anyway, something a little bit more concrete to go with all of the other impressions I have picked up.  How do other people think about literature, that is the endlessly interesting question.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Modern French poets of the 19th century - “Read me, to learn to love me.”

One good reason that these posts do not get written is that I start poking around in the texts themselves, and since I now want to race through post-Romantic French poetry, I find myself a bit crushed.  Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé – it is all so wonderful.  And those are just the giants of the period.

In his “Épigraphe pour un livre condamné” (“Epigraph for a condemned book”), Baudelaire urges his “quiet” and “sober” readers to throw away his book Les Fleurs du mal, leaving it to those who know how to plunge their eyes into the gulfs.  “Lis-moi, pour apprendre à m'aimer” – “Read me, to learn to love me.”

Well, we sure did, even many of us who have never read him. Baudelaire and Les Fleurs du mal (1857) are the beginning, or the beginning of the end if you think it was a wrong turn.  It is because of Baudelaire that Modernism is Modern.

There are many aspects to Baudelaire, even within Les Fleurs du mal; I guess my preferred Baudelaire is the one who brought Romantic ideas about nature to the city.  Romantic in theory, since the young French Romantics have a pretty darn tenuous relationship with actual living nature.  They are awful citified.  Baudelaire is really looking around and writing about what he sees.  If he lived in Jura and wrote about bird’s nests and yeast, he would have been a Romantic, but he lived in Paris and wrote about apartment buildings, which is Modern.

Paris change! mais rien dans ma mélancolie
N'a bougé! palais neufs, échafaudages, blocs,
Vieux faubourgs, tout pour moi devient allégorie
Et mes chers souvenirs sont plus lourds que des rocs.  (from “Le Cygne”)

Paris changes! but nothing in my melancholy
has moved! new palaces, scaffolding, blocks,
Old neighborhoods, for me it all becomes allegory
And my memories are heavier than the rocks.  (from “The Swan”)

I read Les Fleurs du mal in French about a year ago, so I can sympathize with the French students clawing through it for the Bac.  It is pretty hard in places.  Mallarmé is probably still too hard for me, I mean if I am trying to understand him.  Tristan Corbière is too hard, the language too crazy.  Jules Laforgue looks about right.  Arthur Rimbaud is clearly within my level.

The easy one is Paul Verlaine.  Much of his best work, entire (miniature) books, are readable by someone with a semester of French, a real beginner.  The beauty of his sound is audible.  He generally does not use too many words.  They are often such an obstacle to the language-learner, the words.  Verlaine felt like a reward.  When I could not read very much, I could read him.  I have read his first four books in French – “books,” they are such little things – and will keep going someday.

Anyway.  It’s all a marvel.  A rupture.  The beginning of “make it new,” the beginning of  poetic tradition that has stretched with real continuity until – I am not sure.  Possibly not today.  Poetry has a large place in French culture; contemporary poetry, maybe not much at all.  Who knows what will happen.  Meanwhile, French high school students will spend this spring cramming Hugo, Baudelaire, and Apollinaire.  Good luck.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

19th century French fiction crammed into one post

What happens next?  The French novel, French fiction as we know it, finally comes to life in a blast of coffee-fueled energy.  Balzac, Sand, Stendhal, Hugo, then Dumas, Flaubert, Verne, and then Zola and Maupassant, just to stick to the most famous, lots of terrific books that are still widely read and have all kinds of continuity with the French fiction written today.

I’ll blast through them myself, just making a few notes about reading them in French.  Heaven knows if you want to know what I think about Flaubert, that is easy enough to find.  Much of this is familiar to anyone who has taken advanced French.  These are familiar writers, familiar texts.

1.  Almost all of these writers are ideally suited for the punishing or educating of French schoolchildren.  They have written texts of a variety of lengths and difficulties allowing all sorts of clever paths connecting this book to that.

Start Balzac with one of his many short stories or novellas, with Colonel Chabert, move up to Eugénie Grandet, end with Père Goriot.  Maybe put that one on the Bac.  I read one of the possibilities in French, “The Elixir of Long Life” (1831), my fortieth work in the Human Comedy, and the first and only in French.  It is a Don Juan story that otherwise goes pretty much where you would guess from the title.

This year, the big 19th century novel on the Bac is Stendhal, The Red and Black.  The standard shorter Stendhal is Vanina Vanini, which I have not read.  Italian stuff.  For Sand, it’s La Marquise (1832), where the title woman is in charge, pursuing the actor she desires, not a masterpiece but an antidote to the masculinity of a lot of French fiction.  For Flaubert, it’s the Trois Contes (1877), or maybe just the first and easiest story, “A Simple Heart.”  What a triumph, when I finished it – I had read Flaubert in French.  And my French was not that good.

2.  So what do we do with Hugo?  His novels are monsters.

First, there is “Claude Gueux” (1834), a heart-wrenching story about a prisoner, friendship, cruelty, the death penalty – distilled Hugo, champion of the powerless.  As art, if that matters, I thought it was better than the propagandistic novella Diary of a Condemned Man (1829).

Second, French pedagogists have carved up Les Misérables (1862) into many books, not just into abridged editions of a variety of lengths, but more curiously into rearrangements of the novel, often focused on specific characters, so that there is Cosette’s Les Misérables and Gavroche’s Les Misérables.  There is a book titled Jean Valjean (A Journey around some Misérables), like it is a city or a park.  One can imagine an entire Hugo-based curriculum.

There is at least one of these for Balzac, too, The Novel of Vautrin, pulling together scenes featuring Balzac’s great proto-superhero character from many novels.

I don’t know that I approve of this butchery, but I am amazed that it exists.  It is an interesting idea, taking a novel like Les Misérables and returning to it from different directions.  I don’t know that any French teacher is really doing this, but the books exist, and are in print right now.

3.  Zola’s short story “Le grand Michu” (1870) surprised me because of its multiple connections to later French fiction, the whole line of French schoolboy stories, and also to Jean Vigo’s 1933 anarchic masterpiece Zéro de conduite.  The riot at the end of Zola’s story is enacted by Vigo and his little maniacs.  No idea if this is in English.

4.  I discovered that I have more to say, or can babble at greater length, about Guy de Maupassant than I had realized, so let’s cut all that and write more about Maupassant some other time.  He is obviously perfect for infliction upon schoolchildren and French language learners.  His French, at least in his newspaper stories, is pretty darn easy.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The big good poets of French Romanticism - finally I make use of my French - for all of the good it does me

I have in front of me The Oxford Book of French Verse, first published in 1907, “Chosen by St. John Lucas,” a 500 page collection of French poems in French, with only the introduction and notes in English.  Just about half of the book covers the 19th century, and half of that is just four poets: Alphonse de Lamartine, Victor Hugo, Alfred de Vigny, and Alfred de Musset.  Those are the poets I want to linger over here.  You may note that I have skipped the Revolution and the “little bad poets of the Empire,” as the saint calls them (p. xxx).  I was going to say something dismissive, but not that cruel.  For whatever reason, Bonaparte was not good for French literature.

It roared back to life in the 1820s, first with the poets, then the theatre, and then the novel and its variants, but that will be more in the 1830s.  It began with The Poetic Meditations (1820) of Lamartine, and for him that is almost where it ended, since he used his fame to go into politics.  Inventing French Romanticism was only one of his accomplishments.

I am not entirely sure what French Romanticism is.  It is in large part an argument with French Classicism, and I am not so sure what that is.  I am reading an old school edition of Hugo’s Les feuillles d’automnes (Autumn Leaves, 1831) which includes notes about Hugo’s many violation of Classical rules, such as when he uses feminine rhymes inappropriately or puts the caesura in the wrong place.  If you say so, I think.  An advanced topic in French prosody.  Anyway, these poets are doing it wrong, however subtly, which was once pretty exciting.

My memory of the relevant English translations:

There’s a pretty good translation of Lamartine’s Meditations.

There is a functional but dull translation of Musset’s complete poems.

Given his stature, there is not much Hugo in English.

There is close to no Vigny in English.  No idea why.

A short selected Musset and selected Vigny would be valuable additions to English literature, hint hint, poetic translators.  Vigny and Musset have plays available in good English.  See Vigny’s Chatterton (1835) for some intense French Romanticism as reflected in an imaginary version of an actual misunderstood, doomed teenage poet.

I read that one in French while reading Vigny’s complete poems, now that I could.  I have also been filling in some Hugo, a tiny fraction of his thousands of pages of poems.  That would be a feat, reading Hugo’s complete poems.

Vigny wrote narrative poems, mostly in rhyming couplets.  Stories about Roland, Jesus, “The Anger of Samson,” (the death of) “Moses,” “The Death of the Wolf” – how the French love stories about wolves.  I could not believe how many children’s books there are about wolves, both funny and scary.  The hunter in the poem kills the wolf, but learns that wolves are better than people, or no worse.

Early Hugo has been a surprise and just what I expected.  He was immediately Hugolian, from the poems written when he was 18, hugely skilled, confident or a blowhard depending on one’s taste.  His first few little books, collected in Odes and Ballads (1828), are all political, legitimist, about the great fallen heroes who fought the Revolution.  I certainly learned the word for “executioner,” since it appears in every poem.  This is not the Hugo who is the champion of the powerless.  The primary victim of capital punishment he has in mind is Louis XVI.

Hugo changed quickly.  Maybe the poor are the subjects of the last half of Odes et Ballades.  I only read the first half.  Hugo exhausted me.

I have one complaint, which I can at this point make about Vigny and Hugo: they were not great rhymers.  They use lots of conventional rhymes, and there is clearly no penalty for repeating them in poem after poem – ombre / sombre (shadow / dark) , orage / nuage or orage / ombrage (storm / snow, shady), essor / trésor (flight / treasure) – that last one is the worst, since it is so phony.  The poets of a couple of a generation later wouldn’t allow this.  Paul Verlaine put an end to it.