Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Berlin Alexanderplatz - he slices and squashes and bolts and snuffles and gulps and swallows - the hammer, the hammer comes down

The thing itself, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) by Alfred Döblin as translated by Michael Hofmann.

Franz Biberkopf (BBK, Beaverhead) is an ex-con, just out of prison on the first page.  He has some typical adjustment issues.  He makes a half-hearted – sometimes perhaps three-quarters-hearted – attempt to go straight, but is pulled pack into his old world of gangsters and prostitutes.

So this was the end of Franz Biberkopf, which I wanted to describe from the moment he left Tegel prison to his end in the mental asylum Buch in the winter of 1928-9.  (Ch.9, 428)

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a Bildungsroman, or perhaps a parody of a Bildungsroman, since Franz is pretty close to uneducable.  As in Wilhelm Meister or Green Henry, the hero develops by means of defeat, by the author stripping away the false layers.  In Goethe, the process is largely intellectual, but with Franz it is rather more physical.  He takes a beating.  Here is the summary of the seventh of the nine books of the novel:

Chapter Seven

In which the hammer, the hammer comes down on Franz Biberkopf.  (287)

Everything is taken away, including, possibly, Franz’s personality.  How else does Siddhartha become Buddha except by stripping away the worldly excesses?  Franz is pounded flat.

“We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it” (440, almost the last line).  The decadent end of the Bildungsroman tradition.

Much of Berlin Alexanderplatz has little to do with Franz directly.  Döblin inserts advertisements, songs, newspaper stories pretty much directly (collage via Kraus, “To return to the train accident on Heerstrasse, all the injured passengers were said to be improving in the hospital,” 179); he hops freely from subject to subject, spending lines or pages on rewriting Job (“You haven’t lost as much as Job from the land of Uz, Franz Biberkopf,” 366) or wandering through a slaughterhouse or interrogating the poster of some dumb comic play:

Deeper meaning must and can only stand alone.  Exuberant humor should be got rid of, the way Carthage was got rid of by the Romans…  (181)

This is not the narrator, of course, but his description of the attitudes of certain Berliners.  The narrator, he thinks deeper meaning should be buried under a junk heap.  He enjoys shifts of register, parody, ordinary speech, technical language, everything, all at once.  My arbitrarily favorite example is a couple of pages where the narrator ducks into the cafeteria at the Criminal Claims Court and watches some nobody (“A fat young man in horn-rims,” 291) enthusiastically eat his lunch:

His eyes rove about his plate, even though no one’s threatening to take anything away from him, no one is sitting anywhere near him, he is all alone at his table, but he is still worried, he slices and squashes and shovels, quick, one two, one, one, and while he works, one in, one out, one in, one out, while he slices and squashes and bolts and snuffles and gulps and swallows, his eyes are wide open, his eyes are watching the diminishing quantity of food on his plate, guarding him like two Alsatians, alert to his surroundings.  (291)

That sentence is maybe more interesting than the norm – those dogs popping out of the eyes.  My one little bit of skepticism about Berlin Alexanderplatz is that the digressions and tone shifts don’t seem to make a more meaningful, artful pattern.  They mostly look like one thing after another, one thing piled on another.  Still, that’s what I found most exciting about Berlin Alexanderplatz – where will this nut go next?

Biblioklept’s review of Berlin Alexanderplatz points in many interesting directions, and describes pretty much how I read the novel.  I think I only borrowed one Döblin quotation from him.  A quote from Biblioklept himself: “Let Döblin’s narrator explain the relationship of temperature, starch, and sugar for you.”

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Nabokov's guide to Berlin, and Kawabata's guide to Tokyo

The yakuza in Confessions of a Yakuza takes over the gambling racket in 1920s Asakusa, a part of Tokyo I, like most tourists, had visited to see the famous Shinto shrines and also of course the kitchenware stores, including the ones that sell the wax food.  Wanting to learn more, I read Yasunari Kawabata’s The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa (1929-30), not knowing that it was basically Tokyo Asakusaplatz, a true cousin of Alfred Döblin’s novel.

Advanced Japanese writers went through a rapid Western Modernism phase in the 1920s, reading Ulysses in English, for example.  This Kawabata novel is one of the results.  The novel is if anything more fragmented than Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), more digressive.  The main characters are very young prostitutes and the main stories are about their fight to survive, but chapters and digressions wander everywhere (within the boundaries of Asakusa).

It is a brutal neighborhood, but it is also the home of Western-style theaters and most of Tokyo’s movie palaces.  Ultra-modern.  The whole place, including Tokyo’s tallest building, had been wiped out in the 1923 earthquake, and it would all be obliterated again in the war, but anyway in 1929 everything is brand new and exciting.  Kawabata’s prose tries to capture this energy in a dozen different ways.

I have to say, I found this book darn hard to pull into quotations.  Few passages, on their own, make any dang sense.  I am having the same problem with Berlin Alexanderplatz, frankly, but Kawabata’s book is even crazier.  The University of California Press edition, translated by Alisa Freedman, is, incidentally, superb – a map, photos, the original newspaper illustrations, an essay by Donald Richie, pages of desperately needed annotations.

I think of Kawabata as a quiet and restrained writer, in both subject and prose.  Scarlet Gang is anything but that.  It is written by a Kawabata who had not yet found his style and was trying out some new things, which he would soon jettison.

So that’s: same time as Döblin, similar style, similar subject, completely different place.

For the same time, same place, different subjects, and a completely different style, let’s turn to the Berlin stories of Vladimir Nabokov.  His beginnings as a fiction writer were in Weimar Berlin, where he wrote for a tiny audience of fellow Russian exiles.  The book will never exist, but a Nabokov’s Berlin collection, with the most Berlin-ish short stories and excerpts from the most Berlin-ish novels, would be pretty interesting.  For now, I have to piece Nabokov’s Berlin together from his complete Stories and King, Queen, Knave (1928) and so on.

Curiously, Döblin and Nabokov, writing at the same time, create characters who prefigure fascism through their passiveness when confronted with charismatic leaders.  Curiously, both characters are named Franz.

The style, though.  Let’s look at “A Guide to Berlin” (1925), a story that in its own way is highly fragmented.  The narrator tells his friend, over a beer, what he saw during the day.  “We sat down and I start telling my friend about utility pipes, streetcars, and other important matters” (155 of Stories, 1955, tr. VN and his son).  The tortoises at the zoo, life in the street.  Like this:

A young white-capped baker flashes by in his tricycle; there is something angelic about a lad dusted with flour.  A van jingles past with cases on its roof containing rows of emerald-glittering empty bottles, collected from taverns.  A long, black larch tree mysteriously travels by in a cart.  The tree lies flat; its tip quivers gently, while the earth-covered roots, enveloped in sturdy burlap, form an enormous beige bomblike sphere at its base.  A  postman, who has placed the mouth of a sack under a cobalt-covered mailbox, fastens it on from below, and secretly, invisibly, with a hurried rustling, the box empties and the postman claps shut the square jaws of the bag, now grown full and heavy.  (157-8)

The drinking companion is skeptical this adds up to much – “’Who cares?’”  But for Nabokov this is the stuff of art, looking closely, making it strange.  He’s the Berlin writer who has read Petersburg.  Where is the art, the interest, in a mailman emptying a mailbox?  It depends on how you look at it.

A book that does exist is Nabokovs Berlin (2001, note the absent apostrophe) by Dieter Zimmer, which is full of amazing facts about Nabokov’s life in Berlin.  Sadly, I cannot really read this book because it is in German.  The highly relevant picture up above, of the Graf Zeppelin over Wilhelmplatz in 1929, is on page 53.  The book has few pictures of Alexanderplatz because Nabokov’s characters rarely make it that far east.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Berlin Alexanderplatz and city literature

I’ve been spending my time in the 1920s, and the German Reading Month organizers kindly picked Alfred Döblin’s fragmented, jittery, pessimistic Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) for a readalong.  It is a member of an odd genre, the “city novel,” where the city is not merely a setting for the novel but part of is “aboutness.”  The city infects everything in the book.  A number of writers in the 1920s worked on these creatures.

Find me a piece on Berlin Alexanderplatz that does not begin with a lot of other books.  This post will not be much more than a list of books.  Ulysses (1922), Manhattan Transfer (1925), Mrs Dalloway (1925), “The Waste Land” (1922), for example.  Most commonly Joyce’s novel, perhaps because we can be sure everyone subsequent read it, which helps when claiming “influence.”  Nobody reading in English or German was reading Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1913/16/etc.), which would have been an eye-opener.  Somebody writing about Berlin had read it – I’ll get to him.  Döblin actually read and reviewed Ulysses, in German, while writing Berlin Alexanderplatz, and specific aspects of the one book pretty clearly infiltrated the other.  That helps.

Eliot aside, the poets are not given enough credit.  They were exploring the cities first.  Charles Baudelaire demonstrated, or created, the link between the city and the new, the modern, soon to become the Modern.  City people were restless and uprooted.  They were constantly moving.  The city was constantly changing.  How to capture any of that in writing, or notes, or paint?  Lots of experiments; lots of different ways.

Some of the great New York writers were Yiddish immigrant poets, read by no one else, like Moishe Leib Halpern’s In Nyu York (1919).  Or they were European visitors, like Federico García Lorca or Blaise Cendrars.  I should write about Cendrars later, too.

Something changed with the introduction of film, too, especially montage, leading to pure narrative-free “city film”’s like Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929).  How to represent the city – how about a little of this, a little of that, just glimpses seen from the tram window?  Collage changed things – why invent an advertisement when you can just paste in a real one?  Karl Kraus, in Vienna, would sometimes “write” pieces that were little more than him pointing at an appalling ad or article that summed up the age.  Look at how the set, nominally London, of the first scene of G. W. Pabst’s The Threepenny Opera (1931) has so much text, just above the people.

Part of the fun of Modernism is enjoying the dense and rapid network of ideas and techniques, with Picasso leading to Stravinsky to Eliot to Eisenstein, perhaps through something identifiable as “influence,” perhaps not – it is so vague to say that ideas were “in the air,” but “influence” is inadequate, often even false.  Artists of all kinds are looking carefully at the world around them, and looking at their materials.  Sometimes they see the same thing.  Sometimes they represent it similarly.

Tomorrow I will try to write about books, although not Berlin Alexanderplatz, and not just arrange them, however fun that is.  The reader might think “Not sure this guy has that much to say about BA.”  The reader might be right.  The reader who has gotten this far should probably skip this post and come back tomorrow.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Mann's novel of Anti-Ideas - primal ideas of beauty turn into slack-lipped gibberish - "That didn't get us very far."

3. The Magic Mountain is a novel of Ideas.  A Dialectical Novel.  An Anti-Dialectical Novel.

Characters spend a lot of time, and pages, arguing, about revolution, religion, Jesuits, Freemasons, canning – you know, storing fruit in jars, canning.

“Preserves don’t have time, so to speak, but stand there on the shelf outside of time.  But enough about canning jars.  That didn’t get us very far.”  (6, “A Good Soldier,” 502)

There’s the time theme again.  That is just a portion of a paragraph about canning  from what is generally considered to be one of the most profound, most intellectual novels of the 20th century.  Curious that Willa Cather beat Mann to the novelistic use of preserved fruit in jars as mystical objects by six years.

I should have read The Magic Mountain decades ago, and I knew I should have.  But I had picked up an aversion to the Novel of Ideas, and I took Mann to be the leader of the field, so I put it off for thirty years.  The Magic Mountain is in fact highly essayistic, as in the excursions about time I mentioned yesterday, but also surprisingly dialectical.  Meaning, ideas are less often portrayed in essays, as the product of the thinking of the narrator, but in argument, two characters debating, often with our young, attentive hero literally in the middle, stuffing it all into his spongy brain.

Some of these debates are tedious beyond belief, and a number seemed to degenerate into gibberish.  Others degenerated into shouting, which is at least dramatic.

Confusion reigned.  “Objective reality,” shouted one; “The self!” cried the other.  Finally one side was talking about “Art!” and the other about “Criticism!”  And both constantly returned to “Nature!” and “Spirit!” and to which of them was more noble… (6, “Operationes Spirituales,” 457)

Early on in the novel, I blamed my aversion to Ideas for my difficulty with these passages, but at this point it finally sunk in that Mann was deliberately enacting much of the gibberish.  He is critiquing dialectic, the very notion of argument and of any possibility of synthesis.  The above exchange ends in a ludicrous duel, with firearms.

All of this is before the introduction, in the final book, of Mynheer Peeperkorn, a character who speaks almost entirely in a hash of rhetorical fragments that infects our hero Hans and the other residents of the sanitorium, perhaps in part because Peeperkorn is wealthy and generous with alcohol:

The party gave itself over to its own blissful idleness; they exchanged disconnected small talk, scraps of elevated emotions, which in their primal state as ideas had promised ultimate beauty, but on the way to being spoken turned into fragmentary, slack-lipped gibberish, some of it indiscreet, some of it incomprehensible… (7, “Vingt et un,” 561)

Peeperkorn’s presence makes argument useless.  He “neutralized intellect instead” (7, “Mynheer Peeperkorn (Continued),” 580).  His story climaxes when he throws a party at a waterfall, and gives a long speech, with dramatic gestures, that is made completely inaudible by the water.

Mann is not using the novel to express his Ideas as much as he is attacking the possibility of expressing Ideas.  Perhaps Peeperkorn give a more hopeful solution in his great speech; too bad that no one “understand[s] a single syllable of what he expressed” (612).

Why so many pages expended on blow-by-blow arguments if so much of it is gibberish?  It is just like the (novelistic) argument Mann makes about time.  The reader must experience the uselessness of the arguments, even participate in it by working through the Ideas, as if they were what mattered.

I am not so sure that Mann is right, that I really needed to read quite so much nonsense about the nature of progress and so on to get to his point, but I am pretty sure that is why he does it.

Not reading The Magic Mountain has been a useful defense against whatever overhyped, soon-forgotten nonsense became trendy.  “I can’t read that,” I would think, “ I haven’t even read The Magic Mountain!”  But now I have.  What will I do.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Magic Mountain as a novel about time - Can one narrate time?

 2. The Magic Mountain is a novel about time.

Can one narrate time – time as such, in and of itself?  Most certainly not, what a foolish undertaking that would be.  The story would go: “Time passed, ran on, flowed in a mighty stream,” and on and on in the same vein.  No one with any common sense could call that a narrative.  It would be the same as if someone took the harebrained notion of holding a single note or chord for hours on end – and called it music.  (7, “A Stroll by the Shore,” 531)

I will direct Mann’s, and your, attention to this superb essay by Laura Glen Louis, in the Autumn 2019 Hudson Review, on her experience performing a choral version of Yves Klein’s Monotone-Silence Symphony (1947), which does not hold the note for hours but is in the ballpark.  Where would we be without the harebrained?  We live in a harebrained age.

I was so pleased with myself, figuring out that The Magic Mountain was in fact a novel about the narration of time, and then at the beginning of the final chunk, Book 7, see above, Mann just blurts it out, for four pages in the John E. Woods edition.  “[I]t is apparently not such an absurd notion to want to narrate about time” (532, emphasis Mann’s).

The novel simultaneously accelerates and decelerates.  The first short book describes a few hours, as Hans Castorp arrives at the sanatorium; the second hops like many novels hops back to his childhood, family, and education; the third, quite a lot longer, is one full day at the hospital, from breakfast to bedtime, in about 50 pages.  Then 90 pages cover the next three weeks; the next 150 pages covers – why am I describing this myself?

[T]he coverage of the next three weeks of the visit, however, will require about as many lines – or words, or even seconds – as the first three weeks required pages, quires, hours, and working days.  We can see it coming – we’ll have those three weeks behind us and laid to rest in no time.  (5, “Eternal Soup and Sudden Clarity,” 180)

Look at the standards of measurement.  Literal pieces of paper, counted two ways; words on the page; time measured two ways.  How long is a “working day” for Mann?  As The Magic Mountain expanded past the original conception as a novella, as years of writing passed, the subject of the book changed, and these meta-fictional comments, or occasionally essays, on time became a part of the experience of the book.

I am not convinced that Mann’s specific ideas about time are so deep.  Time is experienced subjectively, for example – I knew that.  What is new is that he explicitly moves the subjectivity onto his readers.  Time moves subjectively but in different flowing ways for the characters, for the author, and for the readers – and presumably in many different ways for different readers, who are often stubborn cusses, fighting with the author, reading perversely.  Mann gives us something new with which to fight.

Every piece of narrative writing works with time in some way or another.  Mann brings it to the front, so I can think about it.  He is not the only one.  I am thinking of the first chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), or the interlude in To the Lighthouse (1927), or maybe Benjy’s chapter in The Sound and the Fury (1929).  This is some of the high-level novelistic work of the age, making time do new things.

The chapter with the single day gives The Magic Mountain a pulse.  Once described, it is in the background, repeated endlessly without me having to read it endlessly.  Then there are the months, the seasons, the years, departures and deaths, a series of repetitions of varying intervals.  Mann is right, it is like music, with a lot of simultaneous cycles.  How does he keep the novel from being many simultaneous notes, played for hours but at varying intervals?  One answer is the usual novelistic stuff, characters and furniture and so on, see yesterday’s post, and the other answer is Ideas.  That’s for tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Magic Mountain, many novels in one - I chop it into a pasty hodgepodge - "Malice, sir, is the spirit of criticism"

“Malice, sir, is the spirit of criticism, and criticism marks the origin of progress and enlightenment.” (Ch. 3, “Satana,” 59)

Given that invitation, and the approaching end of German Literature Month, I had better write a bit about The Magic Mountain (1924), Thomas Mann’s comic tuberculosis-infected novel of ideas.  It is several novels in one.  I count at least three.  This helps me organize the long. complex novel, if nothing else.

1. The comic sanatorium novel, a novel about illness.  Illness, as we all know, is a useful metaphor.  Young Hans Castorp visits a Swiss sanatorium to spend some time with his cousin and somehow never leaves, not for years, until life finally intrudes too strongly (meaning, a world war breaks out).  As the director of the sanatorium says:

“First and foremost: there’s the air up here.  It’s good for fighting off illness, wouldn’t you say?  And you’d be right.  But it’s also good for illness, you see, because it first enhances it, creates a revolution in the body, causes latent illness to erupt…” (4, “The Thermometer,” 179)

The rest-cure that causes illness is pretty funny.  Sometimes the novel made me wonder what Kafka’s sanatorium novel would have been like, if he had lived to write it.  He certainly had enough experience with the institution.

The characters are mostly tuberculosis patients, so they are ill but active, with big appetites for food and life and sometimes sex.  The sanatorium is full of young, and less young, people in a world where some of the social rules are a bit relaxed.  Hans quickly falls for the lovely Frau Chauchat – one more reason he cannot bring himself to return to the outside world.  One of the comic high points of the novel is the chapter where he visits the director’s apartment, nominally to see his paintings but really to obsess over his crush.

The scene is packed with oddball sexual language.  The doctor owns an obscene coffee grinder, a gift from a patient, “an Egyptian princess” (“’Yes, that’s a tool for single gentlemen,” Behrens said,” Ch. 5, “Humaniora,” 258).  Hans, constrained from speaking directly about his lust, asks the doctor detailed medical questions about skin and fat, as if he is interested in science.

“I could easily have become a doctor.  The formation of breast milk… the lymph of the legs – it all interests me very much. The body!” he suddenly cried in a rapturous outburst.  “The flesh! The human body!  What is it? What is it made of?”  (261)

Hans uses this language to seduce Frau Chauchat (the italics signify that the conversation is supposedly in French):  “’Let me take in the exhalation of your pores and brush the down – oh, my human image made of water and protein, destined for the contours of the grave, let me perish, my lips against yours!” (5, “Walpurgis Nacht,” 537)

Death is never far from sex, or from anything, in The Magic Mountain.  It is not all comic.  But it is this side of the novel with all of the best little novelistic details, the kind of thing I enjoyed in Buddenbrooks, the cigars and furniture and food:

The room glistened with white from all the milk – a large glass at every place, a good pint of it at least. (3, “Clarity of Mind,” 66)

And fine minor characters:

At the next table on their left was an adolescent boy – still of school age, to judge by his appearance – whose coat sleeves were too short, and who wore thick, circular glasses; he chopped up everything heaped on his plate until it was a pasty hodgepodge, then bent over and wolfed it down, now and then pushing his napkin up behind his glasses to dry his eyes – it was unclear whether this was to wipe away sweat or tears. (3, “But of Course – a Female!,” 74)

My understanding is that Mann began The Magic Mountain as a comic counterpoint to Death in Venice – that was back in 1912 – but that the book expanded as he wrote it, turning into something more complex.  Thus, the second novel, the one about time. Tomorrow, that.

All quotations and page numbers are from the 1995 John E. Woods translation.

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, a doctor, transcribes the life story of his patient Eiji Ijichi, a professional criminal. He covers roughly the 1910s through the 1940s, but the 1920s get disproportionate attention, when Eiji 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.